Ninth House

I have been anticipating reading Ninth House, by Leigh Bardugo, for several reasons: Although I didn’t care for her Grisha series because it was so full of angsty teenage indecision, I absolutely loved the duology Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom, particularly the latter. I felt like Bardugo had stepped up her style and discernment by a lot in the second series, and also, I can’t resist a “gang of thieves” story.

ninthhouseI’m really not sure why Ninth House has been identified as an adult, rather than a teen, book. Admittedly, it’s far too gory and explicit for younger teens, but I could definitely see some of my former book club members from the 10th-12th grade club enjoying this. After all, the philosophy in writing for children or teens is that they always want to read “up,” which is to say, they want to read about a protagonist who is a year or two older than they are. As a freshman at Yale, the Ninth House protagonist, Alex Stern, is just the right age to appeal to seniors in high school. I imagine many parents of said older teens would still quibble with me, because they feel their children should be protected from such graphic fare; and there is a part of me that thinks everyone should be protected from it! But as you learn from reading a lot of books, sometimes you need that stuff to make a point, to expose a wrong-doing, to create empathy in your reader. (Plus, of course, for dramatic effect in your adventure story.) There were certainly plenty of opportunities for that here!

Within the first few pages of this book, I seriously considered putting it down without finishing it. There is a scene early on in which a group of students from one of the magical “houses” at Yale performs a “prognostication” by reading the innards of a man who is still alive (although sedated), with his stomach cut open and pinned back; when they’re done, they stitch him up and send him off to hospital without another thought for his well-being. Also present at the ritual were a group of “Grays,” ghosts who gave off a really frightening vibe. The entire scene turned my stomach, and since I hadn’t as yet invested much into either the story, the scene, or the protagonist (and didn’t really want to encounter more of this), I thought about stopping. But surely all my friends—both personal and Goodreads-type—who were bowled over by this book couldn’t be wrong? So I kept reading.

Ultimately, I was glad I did. Although it took a long time to understand what was happening and also to bond with the main character, I eventually came to appreciate both the bizarre behind-the scenes action and the dogged, flawed, yet honorable Alex, who didn’t give up no matter what.

“Could she grasp the ugly truth of it all?
That magic wasn’t something
gilded and benign, just another
commodity that only
some people could afford?”

Some things I liked about the book:

It gives this Ivy League school an ulterior motive for existing that is both completely creepy and also believable. The concept of a university elite is nothing new, but the idea that they became that way by the practice of necromancy, portal magic, splanchomancy (the reading of entrails), therianthropy (basically, shape-shifting), glamours, and the like is certainly novel!

The funniest part of this is at the end of the book, in an appendix, where the author describes the eight occult houses, reveals in what talent or magic each is invested, and then names graduates (from the real world) who have benefited by being members of the houses during their careers at Yale.

This is not just an amusing commentary, however, on how these students one-upped their futures by participating in magical solutions on the sly. As highlighted in the quote above, Alex comes to realize that magic, while theoretically accessible to whoever was trained or born to practice it, was in reality a tool of the rich and privileged that was sought after at the expense of the poor and defenseless. This is a huge theme of the book, and this is why the reader is able to bear with all the dark scenes, because they are so illustrative of our own contemporary world where billionaires are tripling their wealth during the pandemic while so-called “essential” workers are flogged back to their minimum-wage jobs, despite the danger, by the threat of unemployment. I don’t know if she intended it, but Bardugo here reveals the true “deep state” of influence,
bought and traded favors, and a deep disregard for anyone who gets
in the way.

Up against this mostly impenetrable and nearly unbeatable system of advancement is Galaxy “Alex” Stern, an underdog heroine if there ever was one. She is recruited (and given a full ride to Yale) to be a member of a secret society, Lethe, whose officers are trained to monitor the other eight houses for stepping over the line, and to report and penalize them when they do. Alex wants to use her special abilities for good, but quickly realizes that her job is mostly for show, and that there will be few consequences for any of these offenders, because to bring their activities out into the light would mean embarrassment for alumni, for administrators, and for Yale itself as an institution. What the people who recruited her don’t realize, however, is that first, Alex has abilities about which they (and at first she) are unaware, and that second, Alex has been conditioned by life as an almost constant victim to fight for herself and for other victims no matter how hard the going.

At its heart, Ninth House is a giant (and cleverly structured) mystery. There is a contemporary murder, there are disappearances of vital personnel, there is a string of dead girls from the past that may tie in, and Alex, despite discouragement from both her mentors and her opponents, is determined to solve it in order to bring justice for the have-nots that she sees as her equals.

But the book is not single-minded. There are also themes of friendship and (nonromantic) love, and a lot of social commentary. There is the gradual evolution, also, of the book’s characters as they confront issues and reflect upon their responses. One early-on thought from Alex that I loved was when she was pondering how easily things change from “normal” to not:

“You started sleeping until noon, skipped one class, one day of school, lost one job, then another, forgot the way that normal people did things. You lost the language of ordinary life.”

There were also, in amongst some fairly gruesome scenes that (if you are squeamish, you should be aware) include drug abuse, coercion, murder, rape, and the like, some inside jokes about college that I enjoyed, including some funny dormitory moments among roommates. One library-oriented joke, as noted by my Goodreads friend Lucky Little Cat, was, “I especially liked the special-collections library where occult search requests result in the delivery of either an avalanche of barely relevant books or one lonely pamphlet.’ Anybody who has been to college has encountered this result, with absolutely no occult assistance whatsoever!

Be aware that some readers have accused Bardugo of racism (because of a few comments on Alex’s Mexican origins), and of blatant sexism and misogyny in her portrayal of the rape scenes in the book (because they are pictured from the observer’s point of view rather than that of the victim’s). You will have to decide for yourself how you feel about these accusations.

Bottom line, apart from a rather confusing and disjointed few pages at the beginning, I found this to be a clever, nuanced read about white privilege (as symbolized by magic!) and the lengths to which people will go to cling to it. It also has both a protagonist and a secondary character that, while the book has a satisfactory ending, you are longing to follow into the sequel, which will hopefully be produced quickly.

 

Expansive Paris

I am an unabashed Francophile. I have been to Paris twice, and to the French countryside once for a painting vacation, and aspire to return there at any opportunity. I have mentioned here before that I am attracted to any book with France (particularly Paris) as its setting, and have reviewed a few worth reading. I was therefore excited to discover The Paris Key, by Juliet Blackwell, and to realize that it combines multiple elements that appeal to me in a story.

pariskeyI ended up liking it a lot, but for complicated reasons. Although I expected to like it for the same reason that I have enjoyed, for instance, the books of Jenny Colgan—because the main character realized something about herself that made her elect to drastically change her lifestyle—that aspect of it wasn’t nearly as powerful as it could have been.

What I loved is the gradual exploration throughout the text not just of Paris as a city, but also of the French as a culture, a people, and a lifestyle. The author really got it that the daily priorities in France are completely different from those in America, that it’s a slower, more reflective, less frenetic, more contemplative lifestyle, valuing family, friends, and physical, visceral experiences such as cooking, eating, walking, sleeping, over the career, business, and industriousness focused on by Americans, the infernal “what you do for a living” that seems to take precedence over everything.

There is a moment when the protagonist, Genevieve, gets it too,
when the attractive Irishman Killian invites her to continue on to another destination after they have been out and about together for a while. Her first impulse is to say “I should get back,” and then she realizes: For what reason am I rushing back? I have no deadline, the work will still be there, I can be solitary later, this is an experience that I should embrace, and she does. It was in these moments that the book had weight.

The other thing that I enjoyed was learning more about the unusual vocation of locksmith, especially as expressed in a city as old as Paris, where the locks can vary from ancient to modern, and the duties of the locksmith include repairing and refreshing the old locks as well as installing new ones. It gave a glimpse into buildings with architectural details beautifully described by the author, and that loving attention to detail was a big feature for me.

Additionally, the temptation of the locksmith, to go anywhere simply because she is able, was tantalizing. The main character shared an addiction with me, which is to get to know people by observing the surroundings they choose to create for themselves—perusing their bookshelves, noting their choices of furniture, fixtures, and accessories, and rounding out what you perceive of them by seeing their “native habitat.” In other words, indulging a penchant
for nosiness!

The story itself was eclipsed for me by these other elements. Genevieve is a fairly typical heroine whose emotions have been locked up (yes, there is a lot of symbolism of this kind, some of it overwhelmingly obvious or even trite) by various childhood and adult events or traumas, who needs to work them out and open herself up to life (wince with the lock-and-key metaphors again!). Likewise, there is a mystery she desires to solve about her mother’s past that no one will openly reveal to her, so she must go digging through the possessions left by her Uncle Dave (the deceased locksmith from whom she is taking over the business) and also try to access memories from her Aunt Pasquale (who suffers from Alzheimer’s and is therefore an unreliable witness). The “mystery” becomes all too clear to the reader long before Genevieve herself suspects, which I found a bit unbelievable. And finally, as I have objected to in other reviews, this author had a bit of that compulsion to wrap things up too tidily at the end that I sometimes find grating. This wasn’t as bad as some, but there were issues and encounters that could have been let lie while closure was still provided.

I did appreciate the colorful characters Blackwell created to populate the quaint and insular Paris neighborhood, although a few were a bit stereotypically French—that is, overly vivacious, grumpy, and so on. But over all, this book and its slice of Paris life amply satisfied my fixation, and was a pleasant enough story along with it that it proved to be an enjoyable read.

keysIt brought a favorite book to mind because of the locksmith theme, although the story, characters, setting, and the very locks themselves couldn’t be more different. That book is The Lock Artist, by Steve Hamilton. The similarity is in the feature of the seasoned locksman who takes a novice under his wing and teaches him or her a rare and intricate trade. If you’re in the mood for a thriller with some truly unusual elements to it, including some psychological content, a lot of law-breaking, and some romance, pick up Hamilton’s book. As I summarized it on Goodreads, “Lock-picking, low-lifes, and love!”

One last title

When I dialed up Los Angeles Public Library’s catalog and looked at their e-book selection for Brigid Kemmerer, I found one more book that wasn’t included in either the Elementals, the contemporary fiction, or the Cursebreakers. It was a stand-alone and it was available, so I downloaded it.

thickwaterThicker Than Water is an anomaly, in that it starts out like a contemporary, turns into a murder mystery, and then makes a shift into the weird.

Thomas Bellweather is in trouble, with pretty much no one to whom he can turn. A few weeks ago, he and his mom moved to the town of Garretts Mill so that his mom could make a happy second marriage with her boyfriend, Stan. But two weeks after the wedding his mother has been murdered, and he’s left alone with his brand-new step-dad in a town full of strangers…many of whom believe that he was the killer. There’s not enough proof to lock him up, but there’s plenty to make every cop in town suspect him. Three of those cops, brothers, have a little sister named Charlotte who seems to be the only person interested in finding out the truth and, at least tentatively, extending a hand of friendship to him. But every time the two of them try to get together to work things out, mishaps turn into drama, and Thomas is deeper in trouble. Then, while looking through boxes of his mother’s things in the garage, Thomas makes a strange discovery about her past that turns everything he knows upside down. What, if anything, does this have to do with what’s happening today?

This book was immediately both frustrating and gripping. All the people in town who dedicate themselves to keeping Thomas and Charlotte apart, thereby delaying the vital information they need to discover to keep Thomas out of jail, was crazy-making, as was Charlotte’s alternating stance between trust and fear of Thomas. But what was weird to me was the pacing. The fact that the two protagonists are constantly being separated meant that the story line dragged behind where it “should” have been for a large part of the book, but then…

Since I was reading the book on my Kindle, I paid attention to the “percentage” of book finished. When something super significant happened, I glanced to the bottom of the screen and saw that the book was already at 81 percent, but this book was billed as a stand-alone. Hmmm, I thought: For me to get what I need from this story, we shouldn’t be at more than 65 percent at this point! (the voice of experience speaking) And sure enough, although everything was sufficiently revealed to solve the initial mystery, I was left with so many questions!

I can’t detail them here, because it would completely ruin the book for anyone reading this review, but I will say that I think Brigid Kemmerer owes us a sequel. These characters deserve more closure, and more exposure! The twist at the end needs further exploration and explanation! C’mon, what do you say?

 

Dogged persistence

It’s been a while between posts because instead of dropping the witchy mystery series by Shawn McGuire that I was reading, I kept going and am now on book #9. I’m not even going to bother to list the titles, because they are all a variation on the word “secrets” with another word plugged in front of it.

JustifiedIt’s not that it’s the best (or even close to the best) mystery series I have ever read, but there is a certain satisfaction to be had in pursuing a series from the first book to the last (if this is the last—there will probably be more), and also a certain inertia. Once you get going, the characters and setting are already familiar, and if you have invested in them at all, you just kinda want to know what happened. So I have been following the exploits of Sheriff Jayne O’Shea, her employee / boyfriend / business partner (in their bed & breakfast called Pine Time) Tripp, and her extended “family” that includes her mom, dad, and sister, her deputy, Reed, and the whole cast of characters from the part-Wiccan, part-circus folk, part-psychic, and altogether unusual town of Whispering Pines.

I will say that this town must hold a record for “small town in Wisconsin with the most murders in a 15-month period,” which is the time that is roughly spanned by the nine volumes. The series also gets credit for some of the most unusual ways to die, from ricin poisoning to hypothermia. And there is, of course, the entertainment value of the kitchen witches and green witches and psychics and ex-nuns in town who are either secretly counter-cursing one another or trying to hold the line with positive thoughts, milk baths, and herbal teas, or holding bake-offs of their deliciously described food. If it weren’t for the high murder quotient and the below-freezing temperatures for a large part of the year, a reader might actually want to go there!

I’m halfway through the last, and I promise to get back to reading and reviewing new material soon!

I’ve also been having some fun painting some of my reader friends. Here is Michael, who read Tai-Pan as I suggested, and is now on to the sequel, Gai-Jin.

MBohnet

Fresh look: old books

This is Mystery Week on Goodreads (or maybe it was last week, but the feature story is still up, so…), but the recommended mysteries featured there are some of them rather shallow and cookie-cutter-like. You know what I mean, that list of bestsellers that everybody is reading because everybody is reading them, books with the word “Girl” in their title. In the interest of giving you some more intriguing choices, here are mysteries (many of them series) to plunge you thoroughly into P-I or D-I (private investigator or Detective Inspector) mode. I have, according to my Goodreads notes, read 322 mysteries in the past decade, so let me share some of my favorites…

BoltonSHARON J. BOLTON writes smart, sophisticated, complex, and more than slightly creepy stand-alones with unique protagonists in interesting and unusual settings, including Sacrifice, Blood Harvest, Awakening, Little Black Lies, and (my favorite, I think) Dead Woman Walking. She also penned a four-book series (so far) about Detective Constable Lacey Flint,
a young, reckless, and relentless policewoman risking her life in London law enforcement. Great plots, intriguing characters, “killer” mysteries to solve. If you like the series, don’t miss the short stories/novellas you can only get on Kindle.

CraisROBERT CRAIS is best known for his long-running series about private investigator Elvis Cole, of the Hawaiian shirts and insouciant good cheer, and his dark, silent, and violent sometime partner Joe Pike. This is a great series, equal parts serious and fun just like its two protagonists, and it’s been going long enough that if you start at book #1 (The Monkey’s Raincoat), it will take up a lot of your time. But my preference is Crais’s several stand-alone books: Demolition Angel, about the toughest woman ever to work the Los Angeles bomb squad; The Two-Minute Rule, in which a former bank robber tries to solve the murder of his cop son; and Hostage, in which a group of teenagers on the run from robbing a convenience store hide out in the suburbs by holding a family for ransom (made into a pretty enthralling movie starring Bruce Willis, fyi).

CrombieIf your preference is for the quintessential British mystery, I have quite a few favorites in that area: DEBORAH CROMBIE writes a series starring two detectives who start out separate and end up together—Scotland Yard Superintendent Duncan Kincaid, and Sergeant Gemma James. One of the things I like about this series is that Crombie alternates the lead, so that Kincaid is the protagonist of one, and James is the protagonist of the next. The other thing I like is the complications of their personal lives as they intersect and mingle. Crombie is a slow writer, sometimes not coming out with a book for as much as three years, but the series is now 18 books long, so you can take your time to catch up.

GeorgeELIZABETH GEORGE, while being herself an American, writes convincingly in the Brit genre with her greatly mismatched partners, the impeccable Scotland Yard Inspector Thomas Lynley (a lordship in his private life) and his “woman of the people” partner, Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers, solving crimes in sweat pants and clogs. Her first book is A Great Deliverance, and the series goes on well into double digits.

BillSliderCYNTHIA HARROD-EAGLES writes the Bill Slider series, and while Slider is also a Detective Inspector, it’s much more of a series about plodding police work enlivened by flashes of brilliance and accompanied by a cast of characters both engaging and amusing. It’s not quite like any other British detective series I’ve read, and I’ve loved most of it.

LongmireIf you are NOT a fan of stories from across the Pond, try something completely different by reading CRAIG JOHNSON‘s Walt Longmire series. Walt is a county sheriff in the vast windswept state of Wyoming, and has to deal with everything from cattle rustling to drug dealing to murder, as well as maintaining an uneasy interface with the law on the adjacent Cheyenne reservation. He has an ally in his childhood friend, Henry Standing Bear, and an ever-changing roster of deputies to get him into troubled waters. The series is currently up to 15 volumes; the past few have been a little uneven, but the first dozen are solid. I also enjoyed the TV series, Longmire, based on the character in the book but quickly diverging from the written series’ story lines.

Midnightif you’re looking for something more than a little quirky (read that “paranormal”), with a mystery a part of but not necessarily the main theme of the story, read CHARLAINE HARRIS‘s “Midnight, Texas” books. They are a spin-off in some ways from a four-book series I have previously mentioned—the Harper Connelly books—in which their protagonist, Manfred Bernardo, was a major character. Bernardo, a psychic, is just looking for a home where he can find both mental and actual peace and quiet, and ends up gravitating to a “bump in the road” two-block almost ghost town in Texas, only to discover that its other inhabitants are, shall we say, as unusual as he is (or more so). There are currently three books.

CanaryFinally, if your taste trends more towards dark and violent, check out DUANE SWIERCZYNSKI‘s noir fiction. I have read two of the three Charlie Hardie books, but a friend who is a big fan assures me that they are all equally immersive. My personal favorite of his is actually billed as a “new adult” (a step older than “young adult”) book, called Canary, with multiple points of view done well, lots of twisty turns in the plot, and a stellar ending. Some of his stuff is just too dark for me, but Canary was a winner.

I hope this gives you some ideas for reading to pursue during the next few weeks of solitude! Between this and my other three fresh looks at old books, you should be set. But if you have questions, please ask!

 

Witchy mysteries

Tying in with the witchy theme from my last post are a new set of mysteries that I decided to try. The first three books came up as a set for free for my Kindle (usually not a good sign), but I enjoyed the first enough to read the next two in the series.

FamSecretsFamily Secrets, by Shawn McGuire (not to be confused with Seanan), is the first in the Whispering Pines Mysteries. Jayne O’Shea has come to Whispering Pines in the wake of her grandmother’s death to box up or sell the contents of her house and then sell the house itself. Her father is the heir, but he wants nothing to do with the property, the town, or the inherent memories.

Jayne herself hasn’t been there since a family feud 16 years ago when she was 10 meant the end of summers spent at the lakeside cabin in Wisconsin with her grandmother. But taking care of this task is just what Jayne needs—she has recently left her job as a homicide detective after a traumatic event on the job made it clear she needed a change, not to mention that she just broke up with her long-time boyfriend and has no home. What she isn’t expecting is the fascination that the town of Whispering Pines almost immediately exerts over her.

It’s partly the fact that it’s a town for “outsiders,” those who don’t fit comfortably anywhere else—Wiccans, circus folk, psychics, the differently abled, all found a home here on Jayne’s family’s land, granted a place by the “Originals” (first settlers), and created a place like no other. But the primary initial hold it has on her is the murder she discovers on her first morning in her grandmother’s house (the body is on her property), and the fact that the local sheriff and his dysfunctional deputy appear to be not at all concerned with investigating it. Jayne just can’t help herself—and willy nilly, she immediately becomes embroiled in both the lure and the secrets of Whispering Pines.

I liked the main character and her new sidekick / potential love interest in this first book. I also liked the setting of the remote, exceedingly picturesque village that welcomes only those who don’t fit in elsewhere. And if McGuire temptingly describes any more of the food they are selling and eating in the village shops, I may have to break quarantine to go to the nearest bakery or ice cream place!

circus

I did have some issues with the way the first mystery was structured—solved, yet not solved, with kind of an abrupt ending that was obviously designed to get you to go on to the next book. But since I am a sucker for not knowing what happened, I kept going. I’m halfway through the third book now, but I’m not sure how much longer I will keep reading, because I am also a stickler for grammar, and McGuire (and her obviously sloppy editor) keeps getting the “and I” vs. “and me” wrong. It grates on every nerve. Still, the author has nicely dragged out the potential romantic interest over the course of three books, keeping both the protagonist and the reader interested without getting frustrated, and the setting and decidedly quirky characters are a lot of fun, especially compared to some of the dourly “normal” folk in your average mystery. So I may overlook a few grammatical errors for the sake of story. (But I may also write a letter to the publisher.)

 

Uneven

I tried to think of one word to describe the Ruth Galloway series of archaeological mysteries by Elly Griffiths, and there you see it in the title: Uneven.

The series first started with The Crossing Places, and that book was gripping if only because of its novelty: The plot conceit is that the skeleton of a little girl is discovered and the police, represented by Detective Inspector Harry Nelson, call in Ruth Galloway, a 30-something forensic archaeologist who lives near the fens in Norfolk, to inspect the bones and verify whether it is a modern or an ancient murder. Then a contemporary girl goes missing, and Inspector Nelson begins receiving letters—taunting clues that remind him of the unsolved case of a lost girl from a decade before.

stonecircleBook #11, The Stone Circle, is virtually identical in plot, to the point where I had a real experience of déja vu the entire time I was reading it. Bones are found, then more bones are found, letters are received, then a child is abducted…. Out of the 11 books in the Ruth Galloway series, they pretty much fall into one of two categories—either gripping or dull on an almost every-other-one basis. This one, I’m sad to say, was dull as well as repetitive. In addition to mimicking the formula of a cold case that heats up when a new body is found, it even produces the son of a controversial character from the first book to serve as a mostly irritating red herring. This book almost seemed like a place-holder until Griffiths had a better idea.

I was already waffling over continuing this series: After reading the last book, which was at least original in plot and took us away from the fens to Italy, I was so annoyed by the soap opera of the personal relationships that remained bollixed up that I was ready to give up. People kept doing the same things and expecting different results. This book made that frustration even worse.

It was almost a relief, at the end of this derivative story, to conclude that it was time to quit reading…but then I saw a synopsis of the newest (which will release in July) and finally, something has changed significantly: Ruth has a new job, a new home away from Norfolk, and a new PARTNER. Intriguing. Okay, maybe I will read just one more…

Meanwhile, to those who read #10, The Dark Angel, I would say, get someone who already read #11 to give you the few details on the personal relationships that you need to bring you up to date (you can email me if you want!), but by all means skip reading The Stone Circle and go directly to #12 when it becomes available!

 

Serendipity

It’s so fun when you have a friend who also likes to read and who gets excited about what she’s reading and wants to tell you all about it.

It’s even more fun when your friend thinks she has discovered a new author, only you know something about this author that she doesn’t and can share that.

ninthhouseI went to a concert the other night with my friend Lisa, and while we were waiting for the performance to begin, she said to me, “Oh! I’m reading the BEST BOOK right now, I just discovered this author and I love everything about it, the story, the writing style, it’s so good! You have to read it!” Then she pulled out her phone, punched a few buttons, and held up a picture of the book cover, which was
Ninth House, by Leigh Bardugo.

“Oh!” I said, “Leigh Bardugo!”

Lisa looked surprised. “Do you already know about this book?” she asked.

“No. That is, I’ve heard of it, but no, I know her because she’s a young adult author.”

Lisa had no idea that before she penned her first adult novel, Bardugo had written the Shadow and Bone trilogy, the Six of Crows duology, and King of Scars, returning to the Grisha universe (as well as Wonder Woman: Warbringer). So I got to tell her all about those books, and recommend the ones I particularly like (Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom), as well as tell her the story of when Leigh Bardugo was a brand-new, just-published author who visited Book Café at Burbank Public Library and did a stunning visual presentation for our teenagers of all the ways in which she had found her ideas for writing the Grisha books.

sixMy comments about Six of Crows, from Goodreads:

I liked the first series by Bardugo well enough, but was fatigued by all the magic and angsty pseudo-romance by the end of it. But this one stars a good old-fashioned gang of thieves with skills and exploits attributable for the most part to themselves, not to their paranormal powers. There are Grisha in the mix, but they are much more human, and humanized by association with the rest of the characters. There is attraction among the characters, but it’s much more subtle and doesn’t take over the story, just adds to it. I particularly liked the main protagonist, Kaz, and the Wraith, Inej. And Bardugo’s writing has jumped up to beautifully lyrical, not an awkward word anywhere. Likewise, the world-building and plotting are amazing. Can’t wait to read the next one.

crookedAnd about Crooked Kingdom:

I thought Six of Crows was good, but this one really raised the bar. I got about a third of the way through it and thought, how can it get better than this? and after everything that has happened, how can there still be two-thirds of the book to go? But there was, and things just kept getting more interesting, more desperate, more seemingly unsolvable and insurmountable, with a great big build-up that made me crazy to finish but made me want to savor it all at the same time. I ended up reading the last five chapters a couple of times; I’d read a chapter at breakfast and then at lunch, instead of moving on, I’d go back and read what I read at breakfast to make sure I had caught everything, seen all the possibilities, gathered all the nuance. You know a book is good when your first response at turning the last page is a more than half-hearted desire to start the book over again right that minute. Way to step up your game, Leigh Bardugo.

So now, I will have the pleasure of reading her first book for adults, and Lisa can go back and dip into her back list. Isn’t it wonderful to have friends who read?

19WWMcrow

 

Kate #5

Sometimes reading Kate Atkinson’s books make you feel like you’re meeting your cousin for coffee.

She sits down and, before you can pick a topic of conversation, she launches into a long narrative about her friend Janey. Now, you have met Janey a few times, but you don’t know any of the other players, who include Janey’s ex-husband and his exploits with the new wife, her two sons,  one of whom has made her proud and the other who has gone AWOL, and her formerly drug-addicted daughter for whom childbirth was transformative and who is now out looking for real estate with her shiny new hubby. As you listen, you think, I know that these intimate details of Janey’s life are interesting to someone, but why would you think they would be interesting to me? Could we address subjects that are applicable to us both, please?

If you have a relationship with your cousin such that you could actually say something like that (instead of just listening interminably and politely), your cousin might then say, Oh, I’m telling you all this with a purpose, I come into the story later, just wait for it. So you wait…and you wait…and you wait. And while you are waiting, you are thinking to yourself, Gee, I hope the eventual point of this story is worth it.

Most of the time, when reading Kate Atkinson, it IS worth it. But sometimes you do feel like Doubting Thomas and just want to poke someone!

Big Sky, which is Jackson Brodie book #5, is the epitome of Brodie’s favorite saying, which is,

“A coincidence is just an explanation waiting to happen.”

Although Jackson himself is involved with a fairly mundane set of clients—a woman whose spouse is cheating on her, an entrapment plan regarding a guy on the internet trying to lure young girls—the stuff going on around him, to which he is largely oblivious until it is thrust under his nose and he has to pay attention, is pretty major. There is a scandal from the past that has resurfaced with the imminent release from prison of one of the perpetrators; there is a current drama that only emerges as its links with the past bring the protagonists to the fore; and there’s a whole lot of interpersonal stuff going on. All of this is positively rife with coincidence.

bigskyIt’s been 10 years since Atkinson wrote her last Brodie book, and she chose to age everyone to the appropriate point, from Jackson’s son, Nathan, now a sulky teen, and his daughter, Marlee, about to embark on marriage, to various others from his past, including the wonderful Reggie Chase, last encountered at age 16 but now a Detective Constable in Yorkshire.

Reggie and her partner, Ronnie (equally diminutive but fierce), have been tasked with following up on some details from a supposedly closed case, a vast pedophile ring that encompassed businessmen, politicians, and power brokers in its “magic circle” of depravity. But as they poke at the case, with many of the original players long dead, it becomes clear that something else has emerged from that old association, equally as sinister in its own way, run by the hangers-on from back in the day, who are equally adamant about keeping their secrets. Brodie, typically clueless, somehow bumbles into and out of association with most of the people involved, with sometimes tragic and sometimes comedic effect. The best characters to emerge from this scrum, in terms of reader interest, are definitely Crystal Holroyd and her stepson, Harry.

As I read, I thought that the fact that Atkinson had waited 10 years to bring Brodie back, coupled with the reintroduction of so many characters from the previous novels, would surely signify a satisfying ending to this long adventure, but no. Things between Jackson and Louise are still dangling; we don’t know what happened to Tracy and Courtney; and while the details of this particular outing are mostly resolved, there are a few loose ends that could be tidied, should Atkinson choose to do so. I’m thinking there may be another book in Brodie’s future.

If I’m honest, I’m glad there isn’t another one right now, though; I think my next read is going to be something “fluffy,” with a limited number of characters and relationships and a story told all in one perfectly straight line….

 

News re: my dog

GoodNewsAt the center of When Will There Be Good News, Kate Atkinson’s third Jackson Brodie novel, is a new character, Reggie. I enjoyed this book mainly because I so adored her. She is 16 (sweartogod), looks 12, acts 36, and is an old soul and a compassionate but completely pragmatic one. Best teenager in fiction for a while now.

While I found the multiple story lines of Dr. Joanna Hunter, whose family members were all inexplicably knifed to death in the middle of a field one day when she was a child, Joanna’s husband’s questionable business practices, Chief Inspector Louise Monroe’s domestic violence case, and the almost incidental appearance of Jackson Brodie (who is in-country  for personal reasons and yet by a twist of fate ends up plumped down in the middle of all of these mysteries) all to be interesting, it isn’t until they get connected by Reggie that things really get going, even though she, like Brodie, is involved almost despite herself. The brief period when Louise, Jackson, and Reggie are all in the same room at the same time is my favorite scene in the book.

These books of Atkinson’s are so…perverse! Not in a sexual way, let me hasten to add, but in the sense that they are “contrary to the accepted or expected standard or practice.” You can’t actually call them mystery novels. I mean, there ARE mysteries, and many of them do get solved, but they are practically beside the point. The books are character studies, and there are few who are able to delineate a character as well as Kate Atkinson.

While I find these books frustrating in the way they meander off the beaten path and into prolonged ponderings about this or that (not to mention all the stream-of-consciousness literary references that keep popping up in Brodie’s dragonfly mind), the stories are always resurrected by the strength of the characters themselves.

TookDogBecause of that trait, I think I may have liked Started Early, Took My Dog the best so far of the Jackson Brodie books, although Jackson’s role in it is mostly ridiculous! The central mystery is set in Northern Yorkshire, where Jackson is trying to track down the birth parents of a client who was adopted in England at age two and then taken to New Zealand to grow up. But when Jackson discovers someone he thinks might have been the birth mother, a murder case from 1975 causes all kinds of people to come out of the woodwork to prevent the truth about police corruption and misbehavior from coming out.

The title of the book turns out to be a double entendre, since taking a dog away from his abusive master (literally beating the guy up after he takes out his ill temper on his dog by berating it and kicking it in the ribs) is one of Jackson’s more rational moments in the book.

In addition to the dog-napping (I always thought that should be nabbing, not napping), there is child-napping, and they are both accomplished by former police officers! Tracy Waterhouse, just retired from the force, working part-time as a mall security guard, and supposedly resigned to or even content with her single, childless existence, sees a prostitute dragging her small child through the shopping center while screaming at her, and snaps. She has money in her pocket intended for the Polish bloke remodeling her kitchen, but instead hands it off to Kelly Cross in exchange for her youngest child. Suddenly, Tracy has stepped from one side of the law to the other.

But IS Courtney the daughter of Kelly Cross? Tracy wonders. At first she thinks she’s simply being paranoid, but then she realizes that there are all sorts of people trying to “get in touch” who may have been sent to take Courtney back. Meanwhile, Jackson is, weirdly, encountering the same folks who are after Tracy, none of whom have either his quest or his best interests at heart.

Throw in other seemingly random characters whose histories and futures are tangled up somehow with these two, and things get truly confusing. It’s no wonder that the one piece of dialogue our Mr. Brodie repeats throughout the book is “I don’t understand.” It paints a pretty ineffectual picture of him as a private investigator, but certain leads to some interesting situations.

I liked this best mostly because of the characters of Tracy and Courtney. Tracy is large, awkward, stalwart, and ultimately heroic, while Courtney delights as only a truly quirky small child can. Between the two of them, they carry the story.

smalldog

“Dragon,” courtesy of KJ Allison

As with the other Jackson Brodie books, the point is less about the mysteries and more about human themes of loneliness, grief, and dysfunction. Practically every character (except the determinedly upbeat Judith) is damaged and in need of love and/or salvation. Even the minor characters—Tracy’s colleague Barry, the aging actress Tilly—bring pathos to the story. And yet there is also humor, especially in the way Jackson’s role seems that of a character in a French farce, doomed to make his entrance from stage left just as his quarry (or his explanation) is departing from stage right.

I really hope that Atkinson plans to reveal the answers to some major cliffhangers left dangling off the edge at the end of this one: Who is Courtney, really? What was Jackson up to before he took on this case? Who is the murderer of a rather significant character? And I’m still waiting for the other shoe to drop with Louise, three books later. C’mon, Kate, resolution!