The two books I just finished reading—
The Sparrow Sisters and The Forbidden Garden—evoke the same sense of place that I was discussing in my last post. Rather than being specific to a country, however, that place is a
small world created anywhere that it can thrive:
Next to reading books about books and books about art, I love books about gardens and gardening. While both reading and painting keep me busy enough not to have time for many other things, I aspire to be a good gardener, a better one than the person who plants a few herbs and a couple of tomato plants every spring and vows to do more next year. The truth is, if I didn’t love reading about gardens quite so much, I might do more actual work in my garden—well, I think at this point you’d have to call it a yard, but oh, I have visions!
My favorite garden-oriented books are inevitably the ones set in England, because where are there better examples of the cottage garden, the kitchen garden, the parterres and the knots, the maze, the giant rhododendrons lining the drive to the estate? From The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett, one of my most favorite books as a child, to The Forgotten Garden, by Kate Morton in fiction, or the factual but bewitching writings of such gardening titans as Vita Sackville-West, Rosemary Verey, and Gertrude Jekyll, the wonderful natural world comes alive in tales of lush plantings of azaleas, of bright poppies and peony buds weighing down their stems, of orderly beds of herbs surrounded by low box hedges, of espaliered pear and apple trees and wildernesses of blackberries. When my cousin and I took a long-awaited trip to Cornwall in 2003, although we had gone because our favorite writers set their books there, we ended up spending four of our eight days tramping around the gardens of Trebah, Glendurgan, Trelissick, and the National Gardening Museum at Trevarno, as well as a visit to the garden on St. Michael’s Mount, and counted it all as time well spent.
With a preference for this kind of reading, picking The Forbidden Garden, by Ellen Herrick, off the shelf was a natural for me. The cover blurb described a Shakespearean garden on an English estate that had gone to ruin, and the hiring of a woman with almost magical gardening powers to bring it back to life. The cover itself was beautifully ornamented with a botanical painting of peachy-pink peonies, and the quote from the New York Times called it a “rich tapestry of family lore, dark secrets, and love.” Who could resist?
Upon beginning to read, however, I discovered that although it said so nowhere on the book, this was a sequel to Herrick’s previous work, The Sparrow Sisters, to which it referred back on almost every page in the first few chapters. So I put it down, picked up my Kindle, and ordered up the first book from the library.
I’m not sorry for having read either book…but I couldn’t rate them as highly as I would have liked, given that all my likes come together in their pages. The Sparrow Sisters is about three young women (20s and 30s) in a small town in New England. They have suffered tragedy in their lives—the loss of mother, then father, then their fourth sister, Marigold. The way they eventually pull through the tragedy is to band together and rediscover the legacies of their mother and grandmother, who were gifted master gardeners, by opening a vast and bountiful garden center and selling their various wares. Sorrel, the eldest, is the grower of flowers, while Nettie (short for Nettle) specializes in fruits and vegetables (and is the family chef) and Patience (a shortening of Impatiens) found her calling in the growing of a physic garden and the compounding of “remedies” that would do any hedge witch proud.
The sisters have a special gift for raising plants that extends beyond a mere green thumb into the realm of magical realism, and this is where the books fell short for me. I am a big fan of magical realism, but even magic has to correspond somehow to its own rules, and the expression of it in this story was all over the place. The author didn’t seem to be able to decide, at any given moment, just how far outside of reality she wanted to travel with their abilities, and it resulted in uneven and slightly confusing story-telling. I stuck with it because I enjoyed the personalities of the three sisters very much, and the tale itself, of a town that turns against the people it formerly treasured, is a compelling one. But the magical bits were too isolated, too abrupt, and not sufficiently integrated to work well.
I liked The Forbidden Garden a little better, once I got to it, but with much the same reservations. The story of the blasted and desolate (possibly cursed) Shakespeare garden at Kirkwood Hall is the backdrop for a scene of inclusive family life amongst the Kirkwoods. Graham Kirkwood decides to solicit the help of Sorrel Sparrow, asking her to bring her extraordinary talents to England to resurrect his garden from its barren state. He and his family welcome her into their home and treat her like one of their own…except that the truth is, Graham has brought her in because he is afraid for his wife or his daughter to take on the garden project, the presumption being that the curse will affect only Kirkwoods. But when his wife’s brother, Andrew, recovering from a broken heart, strikes up a relationship with Sorrel, she essentially becomes one of the family…so what now?
The best parts of the book are the vivid descriptions of the work Sorrel does to restore the garden, intricately detailing the overall design, the plants, and the process. The love story is also gratifying. But the twists and turns as Graham reluctantly reveals the background details of what his family (generations back) did to kill the garden are overwrought and somewhat confusing, and both the consequences and the ultimate discoveries take too long to resolve themselves, occurring in the last 30 pages of the book! And again, the author can’t make up her mind whether there is true magic or whether it’s all coincidence based on a talented gardener, and keeps turning tail on choosing either option. So while I enjoyed pieces of the books—the characters, the settings, the gardening bits—quite a lot, the magical realism, of which I am usually such a big fan, worked against the writing to fragment the stories and ultimately render them confusing.
If you, like me, are a gardening book fan, here are some recommendations of other titles you might enjoy, both fiction and nonfiction:
An Island Garden, by Celia Laighton Thaxter
The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady, by Edith Holden
In and Out of the Garden, by Sara Midda
Second Nature, by Michael Pollan
Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature, by Linda Lear
The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett
The Forgotten Garden, by Kate Morton
The Language of Flowers, by Vanessa Diffenbaugh
Prodigal Summer, by Barbara Kingsolver
The Red Garden, by Alice Hoffman
Garden Spells, by Sarah Addison Allen
Thornyhold, by Mary Stewart
On impulse, after finishing Once Upon A River,
I picked up and re-read Jenny Colgan’s The Bookshop on the Shore, which I reviewed here when I first discovered it. Since I thoroughly covered all aspects of the book in my first review,
I wasn’t going to bother to bring it up again; but re-reading it set me thinking on various tangents that I thought might be worth discussing from a readers’ advisory standpoint.
The first tangent was Colgan’s treatment of Zoe’s son, Hari, in the story. Hari is a four-year-old boy, perfectly delightful in every way according to his mother, except that he doesn’t speak. There’s nothing physically wrong with him, and all the doctors consulted by Zoe say it’s a psychological thing and will “probably” resolve itself eventually when something shifts and he simply starts to talk.
This is small comfort to Zoe, who has to live her life explaining something big about her child. Everywhere they go, people bend over and say “Hi, little guy, what’s your name?” and are at first offended at the lack of response and then pitying when they discover the reason why. At every daycare, at every school, with every new acquaintance or stranger in a shop, both Zoe and Hari are called to account for his not being able to do what many parents probably wish their children would do less of—speak, shout, cry. In all these aspects, happy or sad, Hari is silent.
Even Hari’s father, Jaz, judges him by this lack of ability. While he loves his son, Hari’s inability to speak is a constant nagging flaw that Jaz seems unable to get past. Colgan evokes a genuine sense of compassion for Hari and for Zoe for having to deal with all this heavy expectation every time Hari is given the opportunity to open his mouth.
When the pair move to Scotland and Zoe becomes an au pair at a “big house” with three children, for the first time Hari is accepted for who he is, by the five-year-old Patrick. Patrick is, by his own estimation as well as everyone else’s, incredibly clever for his age, and with that quite outspoken.
In short, he’s a talker. Their first encounter:
Hari put down his tablet, got up and padded over to the newcomer.
“Who are you?” said Patrick.
“This is Hari,” said Zoe. “He’s living here too.”
Patrick regarded the boy with some suspicion. Hari glanced over at Zoe worriedly, but she smiled at him as if to say it would be all right.
“Hmmm,’ said Patrick eventually. “You don’t talk too much. I like that. I like to talk A LOT. Do you like dinosaurs?”
“Okay,” said Patrick carelessly.
And just like that, Hari’s situation was normalized. Later, when Jaz visits, Patrick steps up to him and says, “I am absolutely Hari’s best friend.”
“Oh. Well. Good,” said Jaz. “Can you teach him to speak?”
“I absolutely like Hari how he is,” said Patrick.
This was such a simple and beautifully done example of both the hardships encountered by the differently abled and the potential for them to be loved no matter what. I realized, upon re-reading this book, that one of the things I enjoy about Colgan’s writing is her evocation of a sense of empathy with all her characters. This is a key element in readers’ advisory—does your reader want to identify closely with the characters in their book? Some people enjoy being alienated by the protagonists of their stories, but there have been books (notably, The Casual Vacancy, by J. K. Rowling) that I have refused to finish because I found the characters so repellent and so totally lacking in any redeeming qualities that I simply didn’t want to spend another minute in their company.
By contrast, I love reading about people who are different from me, whether that means significantly older or younger, of a different race and country, gay, male, extraordinarily gifted or limited in some way—as long as I can somehow identify with them through the agency of empathy. When I ran my high school book club, I remember some of the parents being puzzled by why all the girls in the club seemed to consistently choose books with gay male protagonists. The reason was not specifically that they were gay or male, but that the author had done a good job both highlighting their differences and conveying their similarities.
The second tangent that came to mind upon re-reading this book was place. Colgan’s books are, at least six of them, set in the wilds of Scotland, up among the hills and the lochs and the sheep, with the wind whistling in off the ocean and the weather subject to change by the hour. If someone asked me objectively if this was my ideal locale to put down roots, I would most likely say no, since I hate wind, don’t like being cold, and greatly value the close proximity of my Trader Joe’s. But I live a comfortable, mostly middle-class life, with a (small) house to myself, a driveable car, and enough income (most months) to keep me going. If I had lived (like Zoe, the protagonist of this book) in a small, dark, stuffy bed-sit in a bad neighborhood of London with my little son, worked two jobs just to maintain that life, and had to drop off my kid at a questionable daycare while I did it, those same hills and lochs and freezing but beautiful views might seem like heaven. In fact, if I lived here in Los Angeles in a grotty little apartment, sharing walls with noisy neighbors who smoked and fought loudly, and had to take the lousy public transportation system to two jobs to get by, Scotland would be a dream come true for me, as well.
This is the talent of the author who can evoke a palpable sense of place for the reader, whether by contrast as in this example, or by the use of lyrical language and detailed description (also employed by Colgan). Since one of the reasons many people read is to be transported out of their everyday lives to another time and place, to a lifestyle they may have dreamed of but never dared to attempt, or even to a lifestyle they wouldn’t voluntarily choose but might wonder about, the sense of place is a powerful tool when advising people on what to read.
The talent of the writer is to make wherever the reader lands more palatable, or at least more fascinating and foreign or perfectly homey. For instance, while none of us might want to live in the bed-sit in Edinburgh or in London, where Colgan’s characters Nina and Zoe originated before embracing Scotland, that’s partially because of the way the accommodations, and their surroundings, are described: Dim light, dirty streets, noise, confusion, traffic, bad air, crowded buses and trains, the pervasive smell of takeout drifting up from the café downstairs—a thoroughly unappealing situation.
On the other hand, what if the bed-sit you were living in, just as tiny, were at the top of an old house in the Latin Quarter of Paris? What if, even though it was small, and you had to climb four flights of stairs because the elevator was always broken, once you arrived at the top and entered your little space you could see out the dormer windows to a perfect view of the dome of the Sorbonne? What if you painted your tiny flat a beautiful shade of seawater green, and put up diaphanous sheers at the windows, and hung a few favorite pictures, painted by talented friends, and had a cozy little stove to keep it warm? What if outside your tiny room and down four flights of stairs was Paris?
The quality most closely related to a sense of place as an appealing quality of a book is the desire (or need) for escape—to experience something different, somewhere else, and live there for a while. Try out your readers’ advisory skills by describing the setting of the book you are suggesting and see if your readers’ eyes don’t light up at the prospect of going there.
In my last book review (too long ago, I know—things have been hectic), I mentioned that I was going to read another book by Cathy Lamb, because I was so enamored of the first line of the book:
“I left my wedding dress hanging in a tree somewhere in North Dakota.”
It turns out, unfortunately, that the first line was the best thing about that book. Although I did finish it, and although I did enjoy certain aspects, I concluded that this author is just too disjointed in the way she structures her novels. There is a challenge for the heroine that seems perfectly realistic and commonplace, and yet the way it is addressed in the novel is through the cultivation of that heroine by perfectly unrealistic, silly, contrived people and circumstances. As I indicated in my previous review, it’s like someone took a book chock full of magical realism, tore out all the pages, and dumped them in a cauldron with the ones from a straightforward realistic novel, and then drew pages out at random and put them together to make a new book that jumps wildly between fantasy and real life.
And yet…I ended up reading two more of them.
One of the (poor) reviews of Julia’s Chocolates on Goodreads commented that the book was “sappy chick porn.” Her justification of this was that whenever a woman in such a book left an unhappy marriage, a horrible relationship, or another life-threatening situation, there is always around the next bend a delightful little town, a wildly successful talent that she can immediately turn into a new career, and a perfect Prince Charming. None of this resonates of truthfulness for anyone, but those are probably the exact reasons why books such as this enjoy a wide readership. Julia’s Chocolates was not a particularly well done example of one of them, but in the next two books, I did find some saving graces.
The next book I read is called Such A Pretty Face, and it is, as you would surmise, about a fat woman plagued by the constant cliché of supposedly well-meaning people telling her that if she’d only lose weight, everything would be divine. But I have to give Lamb credit: In this one she managed to avoid a lot of the clichés that plagued the previous book, and she actually drew a realistic picture of a woman so inundated by horror in her life that all she felt able to control was her eating, her eventual size protecting her in some aspects from dealing with the world around her.
The portrayal of Stevie Barrett’s terrifying childhood and the precipitating event that sent her from a loving though troubled home into a dysfunctional, belittling one was sensitively done, with details so perfectly personal and intimate that they evoked the scenes almost too powerfully for the reader. Similarly, her struggles as an adult to come to terms with herself are touching. After a heart attack at age 32, she undergoes bariatric surgery and loses more than half her weight, but inside she is still the fat, unattractive, deeply unhappy person she was never able to confront. Slowly, with assistance from friends and relatives, she begins to turn this around.
The criticisms of this book are two: One, Cathy Lamb doesn’t know how to write dialogue for the bad guys. She can depict them realistically, but when it comes time for them to speak, they sound like the villain in a melodrama, complete with handlebar mustaches and maniacal ha-ha-has! Two, of course, is the perfect love of her life who discovers, pursues, and wins her in the course of the book. As my friend on Goodreads said, “I mean literally, the next man she meets will always be handsome, sexy, available, and perfect for a long-term relationship.” This book deals with that topic more realistically than did Julia’s Chocolates, but it still seemed a bit too ideal.
Actually, let’s make those criticisms three, which goes as well for the next novel: the completely generic book covers. There were so many interesting images in this book that could have been featured on the cover to give it a little pizzazz as well as some intrigue, but no. Also, in the last book I will review, the sisters all three had black hair. Ahem.
My favorite, The Language of Sisters, is about three women—Antonia, Elvira, and Valeria—Russian sisters who escaped Communist Russia with their parents when they were young children, and moved to Oregon to be with the rest of the noisy, loving, extended family of Kozlovskys. This book, as do most of Lamb’s, has a touch of magical realism to it: The sisters are able to hear one another in their heads at times of danger, sadness, or trial, and can call out to one another for help. The book is narrated by Toni (Antonia), and is essentially her story, although it encompasses both her sisters, her extended family, and the “extra” family she has created on the dock of the tugboat (floating in the Williamette river) that she calls home. It’s not a surprise that those characters, given Lamb’s propensity for exaggeration, include an interracial couple, a lesbian couple, a high-priced call girl, an elderly opera singer suffering from dementia, and a husky blond DEA agent jonesing to be Toni’s soulmate.
The things I enjoyed about the book were the secrets that are gradually revealed throughout the course of the book—some in the recent past, and some left over from the girls’ Moscow childhood. The flashbacks to Moscow were particularly powerful. And I will admit that I also enjoyed, even while scoffing at, Toni’s blossoming relationship with Nick (the DEA agent). Apparently even a cynical reader can’t, in the end, resist romance.
I’m still not sure I would count Cathy Lamb as among the authors I like or would return to for more; but this has been a pleasantly fluffy, cozy, romantic interlude in my reading habits for which I have been grateful while confronting so many challenging pursuits in the real world for the past few weeks. (Let me just say that “I hate Microsoft” encompasses almost all of those challenges.) Although I will now return to my regularly scheduled programming of fantasy, teen fiction, and anything else that strikes my fancy, I won’t rule out another Lamb interlude in my future.
I’m reviewing the book Once in a Lifetime, by Cathy Kelly. I’m not sure why, because I’m about to pan it. But stick with me, you may find it of interest.
This book was a failure that had all the advantages to be a success.
I have the feeling Cathy Kelly aspires to tell stories like those of Maeve Binchy, and she certainly had all the Binchy elements here: An interesting locale, a bevy of memorable characters, and some life decisions that needed to be resolved. And it came so close in many respects, but in others was a huge disappointment.
The book is the story of various people who are most of them somehow related to a wonderful department store in Ardagh, Ireland called Kenny’s, the epitome of all things elegant and unique contained within its stalwart Edwardian exterior. And yet, instead of beginning with the store, the book first starts the narrative with a rambling description of the character Star Bluestone, a witchy woman with special powers who lives a happy single life as a hermit in a cottage and weaves beautiful tapestries that oh, here’s the connection, she sells at Kenny’s.
The book should have begun by being firmly focused on the store and its owner, because he is pivotal, and the store turns out to be the connecting element for virtually all of the characters. And once she gets to it, Kelly tells just enough about it so that you are thoroughly enamored of it and wish you could shop there; but then neglects to give it that Binchy feel of daily involvement that would have made it a true vehicle. Kenny’s Department Store could have served as the foil to showcase all its characters in the same way that Binchy’s The Evening Class used the night school to examine the lives and secret goals of all the folks who were enrolled in its beginning Italian class; but Kenny’s ultimately took a back seat. It came and went in importance, and although the story wraps up with a Kenny’s narrative, it disappeared for far too much of the book to be the sustaining element.
Likewise, in some ways Kelly is a master at characterization, and yet I felt like, in the end, her characters failed to hold the line. The personality and presence she developed for TV reporter Ingrid Fitzgerald meant that Ingrid simply would not have reacted to things the way she did in the end, I don’t care how soothed she was by the book’s airy-fairy mystical witch woman who seemed to have the solutions to many of the characters’ problems. Similarly, if this person was to be the catalyst for so much action, then she, like Kenny’s, should have been far more prominent throughout the story, instead of in bits and bobs here and there. She has the “Star” role as the opening character and then disappears for most of the book. As for the rest of the ensemble, I sincerely liked Charlotte (Charlie) and Natalie, David Kenny, and even the subsidiary characters Dara, Molly and Ethan, and Ingrid’s best friend whose name I am blanking on; but their stories were so uneven in length and detail that the reader got confused as to where the book was going and what would end up being significant. Tangents abounded.
One additional disappointment was that Kelly gives a big promise of treating her women like people, and then succumbs, near the end of the book, to what I would consider rank misogyny. One goes completely out of character to forgive the unforgiveable; another (a successful and self-sufficient businesswoman) acts like a giddy schoolgirl and embraces a “last chance” romance with a younger man (all of which was fine), whereupon her friends observe that “he’s just the type of strong man she needs.” What?! That is not fine.
Finally, what did the book in for me was its cover and its title. “Once in a Lifetime” is so vague as to be insulting to a book as specific as this one was; I don’t even have a clue to what it refers in this story! And where in the world did that picture of a girl on a swing come from? No one in the book ever frequents a playground, or gets on a swing, or feels as happy and jubilant about it as this pictured stranger apparently does. What the hell, publishers? While I was ultimately able to read the book for its own merits (which, despite my negative review, were many), the cover was so misleading that it took me twice as long to get into the story, which wasn’t following the lead that the cover gave it. It’s a relationship book masquerading as chick lit.
I don’t usually even review books that I didn’t enjoy, but I was so frustrated with this one that I had to vent. The ideas, the setting, the characters, the language were all there, but it just didn’t gel. I would love to see Kelly do a rewrite of this book, reign in some of her characters (enough about Charlie’s mother, already!) and expand the others, connect them all more closely with the store that brings them together, and change the title and cover to something reflective of all that (like this one!).
I doubt that would ever happen, but that is my wish, because this book DESERVED to be better.
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.
It’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….
At 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.
Because 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.
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!
For those who appreciate a lengthier read, I have attempted to round up some novels with Christmas themes or settings and, in doing so, not make you doubt my good taste!
For ’tis true, ’tis true that a plethora of Christmas tales exist, but whether you want to read any of them is the question. I have, therefore, found a few I would consider a bit more literary, and a bunch that are connected to some genre series, since much may be forgiven your favorite authors when they sell out, er, decide to delight you with a Christmas-related chapter.
First off, consider two short, sparkling comedies set at Christmas-time by Nancy Mitford, the writer later known for Love in a Cold Climate. Christmas Pudding and Pigeon Pie are Oscar Wilde-ish “great house” stories with a cast of ridiculous upper-crust characters rivaled only by those depicted by E. F. Benson and P. G. Wodehouse.
Next, there’s Wishin’ and Hopin’, a Christmas story by Wally Lamb, which focuses on a feisty parochial school boy named Felix Funicello—a distant cousin of the iconic Annette.
In a similar humorous vein, check out comedian Dave Barry’s The Shepherd, the Angel, and Walter the Christmas Miracle Dog. Or, on a more sympathetic note, Frank McCourt’s Angela and the Baby Jesus, relating the story of when his mother Angela was six years old and felt sorry for the Baby Jesus, out in the cold in the Christmas crib at St. Joseph’s Church….
The Christmas Train, by David Baldacci, is not a book I have read, but it sounds like a perfect storm of circumstances guaranteed to be entertaining, landing a former journalist on a train over the Christmas holidays with his current girlfriend, his former love, and a sneak thief, all headed towards an avalanche in the midst of an historic blizzard.
Skipping Christmas, by John Grisham, follows the fate of Luther and Nora Krank, who decide that, just this once, they will forego the tree-trimming, the annual Christmas Eve bash, and the fruitcakes in favor of a Caribbean cruise.
One of my personal favorites to re-read this time of year is Winter Solstice, by Rosamunde Pilcher. It is sentimental without being mawkish, and brings together an unusual cast of characters in an interesting situation bound to produce results.
Now we enter the realm of franchise genre fare with a nod to Christmas:
The Christmas Scorpion is a Jack Reacher story (e-book only) by Lee Child, in which Jack’s intention to spend the holidays in warm temperatures surrounded by the palm trees of California somehow lands him instead in the midst of a blizzard facing a threat from the world’s deadliest assassin.
There are many in the mystery category, from Agatha Christie to Murder Club to baked goods-filled cozies:
In Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, by Agatha Christie, a curmudgeonly father turns up dead after telling all four of his sons, home for Christmas, that he is cutting off their allowances and changing his will. Poirot suspends his own festivities to solve the murder.
James Patterson has a couple of entries: The 19th Christmas, a Women’s Murder Club book, and Merry Christmas, Alex Cross, starring his popular detective trying to make it back alive for the most sacred of family days.
Charlaine Harris’s unconventional pseudo-cozy series about housekeeper and body builder Lily Bard features Shakespeare’s Christmas, in which Lily solves a four-year-old kidnapping case while at home for her sister’s Christmas wedding.
In a similar manner (though with quite different affect!), Rhys Bowen’s Irish lass Molly Murphy attends an elegant house party at a mansion on the Hudson in The Ghost of Christmas Past, and tries to fathom the reappearance of a girl who disappeared 10 years ago.
Anne Perry, known for her historical fiction featuring the Pitts (Charlotte and Thomas) and the rather darker William Monk, has written 16 Victorian Christmas mysteries to date, the latest being A Christmas Revelation (2018).
Cozy mystery writer and baker Joanne Fluke has written at least four full-length books plus some short stories enticingly evoking Christmas cake, sugar cookies, plum pudding, candy canes, and gingerbread cookies, all with the word “Murder” appended.
And Ellen Byron continues her hijinks in Bayou country with Maggie Crozat in A Cajun Christmas Killing, complete with recipes.
In the Western genre, you can find A Colorado Christmas, by William W. and J. A. Johnstone, in which one family’s Christmas gathering turns into a gunslinging fight for survival, and A Lawman’s Christmas, by Linda Lael Miller, a combination of love story and western set in 1900s Blue River, Texas.
One writer of whom I am fond, in the “relationship fiction” category, is Jenny Colgan, and she has made the most of her Christmas opportunities. The only problem with them is, each and every one is a sequel to one of her other books, so without reading the first, you will be somewhat lost inside the Christmas special. She has written four “Christmas at” or “Christmas on” books to date, set in the previously detailed locales of Rosie Hopkins’ Sweetshop, the Cupcake Café, the Island, and the Little Beach Street Bakery. But if you want some enjoyable, lighthearted fare a step beyond a simple romance, you may want to read the first books and come back for the Christmas ones.
In straightforward and utterly enjoyable chick lit, we have Christmas Shopaholic, by Sophie Kinsella, an ode to shopping with a Christmas theme for her popular heroine, Becky Bloomwood Brandon.
And then we hit the high tower of paperbacks that is the romance genre. I’m not even going to try to name all the books written within the environs of romance series, I’ll just give you a list of authors, and if you see a familiar one, go look her up on Goodreads with the word “Christmas” appended to her name:
Mary Kay Andrews, Jennifer Chiaverini, Janet Dailey, Johanna Lindsey, Debbie Macomber, Fern Michaels, Linda Lael Miller, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, Nancy Thayer, Sherryl Woods…and so on. There are PAGES of titles.
Finally, if you are a nonfiction kinda person, I’m tagging on a couple for you, too:
In I’m Dreaming of a Black Christmas, comedian Lewis Black says humbug to everything that makes Christmas memorable, in his own engaging, curmudgeonly style.
In their quest to provide mathematical proof for the existence of Santa, the authors of The Indisputable Existence of Santa Claus: The Mathematics of Christmas, by Dr. Hannah Fry and Dr. Thomas Oléron Evans painstakingly analyze every activity, from wrapping presents to cooking a turkey to setting up a mathematically perfect Secret Santa. Lighthearted and diverting, with Christmassy diagrams, sketches and graphs, Markov chains, and matrices.
If you can’t find something to read and enjoy from THIS list, I wish you a slightly exasperated Joyous Yule, and hope to find you something non-holiday-related to read in the New Year! —The Book Adept
Someone recommended Jane Harper to me as an author I might enjoy, so on my last virtual library visit, I downloaded The Lost Man to my Kindle. I forgot it was there and read other things, then realized I only had seven days left before it disappeared back into the library catalogue, so I put aside the Christmas-themed stuff for a minute and started it at 3 a.m. on Monday.
To quote another reviewer on Goodreads, this is less a novel and more an experience in which you lose yourself. And when you read it unencumbered by expectations, the power of its prose jumps out at you and grabs every bit of your attention.
The landscape, the Queensland (Australia) outback, is the most powerful character in the story. The landscape pares people down into either the essence or the caricature of themselves. Setting a mystery there is like creating a locked room puzzle (once you get in, there appears to be no way out), except that the room is an endless, airless, boiling plain of sand. The setting has dictated the style and pacing—spare, dry, concentrated.
The characters, three brothers, run livestock on land that, while adjacent to each other’s holdings, is hours apart in travel time, from each other and from “town.” Nathan Bright, the eldest and the protagonist, works alone and lives alone on his land (a backhanded gift from his former father-in-law), a scandal in his past making him a pariah with everyone but his family, and uncomfortable even with them. Divorced and bitterly intent on prying some form of joint custody of his son, Xander, from his ex-wife, Nathan is inturned and enigmatic. Cameron, the middle son, a “hail fellow well met” type, and “Bub,” the youngest brother, a bit lost in the shuffle and wishing for other options, live and work together on their father’s former holdings, with Cameron’s wife and two children, the boys’ widowed mother, and various stockmen and itinerant workers.
At the beginning of the story, there is a small gathering at the stockman’s grave, a landmark headstone out in the middle of nowhere, so old that no one remembers who is buried there. Various legends remain about this eerie place, and it’s about to acquire one more: Cameron’s body has just been discovered in the slight shade cast by the stone.
Questions abound: How did he get there? Something had been troubling him—did he choose to meet his death by this unpleasant method? This is the premise of local law enforcement, and also of most of those who knew him…because if he didn’t, then the incredible isolation in which these people live leaves room for only a few suspects. The questions begin to prey on Nathan’s mind….
The mood and the tone of this book fascinated me. The characters remain enigmas for much of the story, their demeanors an exercise in taciturnity. Even the children are opaque. Likewise, the stark factors of living in the outback—reminding yourself to drink 10 times a day, attending the School of the Air via radio because the closest “local” school is 20 hours away in Brisbane, never leaving the property without noting down your destination and the expected time of return so a search party can be sent out if you miss your mark…all speak to a daily tension already so high that adding any sort of drama to it could spark a wildfire.
If you enjoy inhabiting an environment nothing like your own and learning what kinds of people are challenged by it to make a life there, this book will pull you in. If you are fascinated by the interplay of emotions between characters who have known each other forever and yet now doubt they know anything at all, this book will keep you guessing. Slow pacing and immaculate plotting give you questions and doubts just as the characters arrive at those same thoughts. It’s an emotionally charged but quietly told story that is probably my favorite read of 2019.
READERS’ ADVISORY NOTES: I’m trying to dredge up from my subconscious some other books that might share the appeals of this one. Perhaps The Road, by Cormac McCarthy, although it is such a stylized kind of work compared to this…. The River, by Peter Heller, has certain similarities. Maybe The Round House, by Louise Erdrich? or Bluebird Bluebird, by Attica Locke? The Lost Man gives me sort of the same feeling as reading “King Lear,” with the twisted family dynamics, the ugly lies and truths, the suspicions and doubts and manipulations.
Lauren K. Denton’s book was one of those that popped up as “recommended for you by Amazon” while I was shopping for other things (velcro fasteners and washi tape, so go figure), but it sounded appealing and I love “discovering” debut authors, so I bought it for my Kindle.
It was pleasant, well written, and ever so slightly generic. The story is about two women from the same family in different time periods, experiencing revelations about their lives while ensconced at The Hideaway, a large, rambling old Victorian bed and breakfast in the deep South.
Mags was the grandmother, recently deceased, who ran away
(as a young woman) from her upscale Mobile, Alabama debutante lifestyle to a tiny town by the shore when she realized that her cheating husband was never going to change. Sara is the granddaughter, owner of a smart antique shop in New Orleans, who left her past in that tiny town behind, but now inherits the B&B from her grandmother and is left with the task of rehabbing it and bringing it back to life. The Hideaway is inhabited by an eccentric crew of seniors who arrived when they and Mags were young and ended up staying until they were old.
Each of the women is also given the opportunity of a life-changing relationship and has to decide whether to choose true love or solitude.
The story is told from the two women’s viewpoints, although in the third person, and jumps back and forth between the 1960s and the present. The characterizations are good, and there are some details (such as the wood-working suitor who engraves a key somewhere on every piece of furniture he makes as a symbol of his love) that are engaging. But there is a vagueness about some of the details that makes the story less than credible, and though none of it goes so far as to be ridiculous, the lack of explanation keeps the story from having as much impact as it could have had.
For instance, the original owner of the B&B walks away, leaving it in the hands of the youthful Mags, but there is never a detail about deeding it over. Likewise, with all the people who move in and never move out, it’s nebulous how Mags manages to make a living and keep the house together, since she’s not bringing in regular profits from turning over B&B guests. Likewise, Sara is left the house with the expectation that she will rehab it, yet we don’t learn how she is supposed to meet this expense—did Mags leave plenty of money to do so? because Sara’s small business in New Orleans certainly can’t support that kind of project; but again, we don’t know and are not told where Mags would have found the resources to leave.
I mildly enjoyed the book; it falls into that “new” category of relationship fiction that is my coined term to avoid using the to-me-perjorative “women’s fiction” label. As Liz Kay says in her excellent essay, “What Do We Mean When We Say Women’s Fiction?”: “We get stories about how to be better mothers, or how to understand our own mothers, or how important the bond between sisters is. We get romantic comedies that remind us that we too can be chosen if we just fix whatever it is that’s broken—our workaholic tendencies? Our distrustful independence? Our slutty ways? Something is broken in us, and if we fix it, we’ll be rewarded with the love that tells us, yes, we have value.” Denton’s book definitely falls squarely in the center of this description. But Kay maintains that if we as women desire to read books about mothers and sisters and lovers, they should include those whose flaws never get fixed.
“Fiction, all fiction, should challenge and expand our empathies, not simply reinforce the same assumptions, the same rules.”
Her ultimate conclusion about so-called women’s fiction is, “I don’t want to talk about how to be a woman in the world. I want to talk about the world we’re being women in.” I would have to agree.
One of Denton’s recommenders says, “…the perfect book for an afternoon on the back porch with a glass of sweet tea.” Although this presents an image that’s a little cloying, it’s not all wrong. I wouldn’t go so far as to denigrate this book, but it’s not stepping up in the manner that Kay advocates. I did love all the detail about the house itself, and the descriptions of the furniture carved by William. Sometimes, although reading the story doesn’t do it for you, the small details of the daily life being depicted are nonetheless seductive!
Afterthought: One curious point about The Hideaway is that it was published by the Christian house Thomas Nelson Zondervan; yet there was virtually no overtly religious message anywhere in the book. At one point, one of the inhabitants of the B&B persuades Mags to attend her Baptist church, which Mags describes somewhat derogatorily as “just what she expected,” which is to say singing, praying, and a fire-and-brimstone-wielding minister. You think she is going to have a moment when the minister calls for silent prayer and Mags wonders if she is finally ready to give up the past, but just as she is descending into her first-ever communication with God, the minister breaks into the silent prayer time, and Mags concludes to herself, “Just as well, I wasn’t ready to give it up anyway.” That, and a nod to God in the author’s acknowledgements, was it. One cynically wonders if this tidbit was added simply to qualify for publication?