Saturday, April 30, 2011

Meet Jackson Brodie, my latest addiction.

Case Histories by Kate Atkinson is a heck of a detective novel, the first in a series of novels featuring police inspector turned private detective, Jackson Brodie.  Set in Cambridge the novel introduces three separate tragedies Brodie has been hired to investigate.

Why it works so well?  Atkinson brings a different touch to the ubiquitous crime fiction genre. Brilliant, crystal clear writing helps, but she also engenders her characters with such humanity, all of them.  Unlike alot of crime fiction, these characters are skillfully drawn and aroused real empathy from this reader.  The focus is not on the nature of the crime, but the impact of the crime on those left behind.

The plot is also more satisfying than many crime novels I have read recently.  Atkinson links three apparently unrelated "case histories" through the personal story of the detective.  This works and left me with a sense of a beautiful whole by the end of the book.  It is the structure of the narrative that works so well.  In different ways Jackson becomes personally involved with his clients.  There are few clear lines between detective and victim here, the two spill into each other, and this overlapping of stories is for me what sets the novel apart, the themes emerge alot stronger.

Jackson is very engaging.  On the surface he shares many of the features of alot of his fictitious detective contemporaries: approaching middle age, a loner, broken marriage recently behind him, trying to find time to be a good father, favours a particular car, and has an easy way with the ladies.  We get to know Jackson through his reactions to those around him.  He is empathic, and accepting of human frailty, we learn later in the novel of the tragic circumstances in his own life that no doubt have contributed to this.

 For me, Case Histories is a definite winner, and has left me wanting to read the other three Jackson Brodie novels without delay.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Teaser Tuesday: The House of Spirits

Teaser Tuesday is hosted by Miz B at Should Be Reading.  All you have to do is choose two random teaser sentences from your current read.

Mine this week comes from Isabel Allende's House of Spirits:

"More than half a century has passed, but I can still remember the exact moment when Rosa the Beautiful entered my life like a distracted angel who stole my soul as she went by."  p.35

"The pig arrived on a Tuesday.  On Friday, when the pig was no more than a heap of skin and bones that Barrabas was gnawing in the courtyard, Clara announced that there would soon be another death in the del Valle family."  p.38

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Review: The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

This is the first novel by Atwood that I have read, and like much of the dystopian fiction I have tried, I would have to say I admire it more than I actually enjoy reading it.

The story takes place in a fictitious 21st century United States in a totalitarian regime known as the Republic of Gilead.  I think part of the enjoyment of the novel comes from the way details of the Handmaid's life, are revealed to the reader, so I won't go into too many here.  Let's just say that in this society woman are only valued for their ability to reproduce, and that's it.  Feminism has come and well and truly gone.

I found the ideas in the novel thought provoking and relevant.  For instance, in  a society where some members are surpressed and diminished, all the members of the society lose.  Themes of identity, freedom, survival and the role of love are also canvassed.

The world Atwood creates, with its strange formalities and regulations but also blood lust and deprivation is convincing.  The writing is economical and brutal, which certainly adds to the overall effect.  It really is quite the horror story in many ways and I think works because, certainly as a female reader, it seemed oddly plausible and therefore frightening. 

Ultimately like a lot of dystopian fiction I think, The Handmaids Tale illuminates aspects of what it means to be human, which we might otherwise take for granted.  The novel does this well and I suspect has left me with a lasting impression.   This story will not be to everyone's taste; it is odd and dark.  I think it is one of those novels where my thoughts and opinions will settle a bit more with the passage of time.  I certainly look forward to reading more fiction by Margaret Atwood, she has a unique perspective at the very least.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Review: Emerald City and Other Stories by Jennifer Egan

Jennifer Egan is a US novelist and short story writer.  I thoroughly enjoyed this collection of eleven short stories.  Each of the stories stand alone from the others, distinct and sharp, but taken together they also resonate with common themes.  Egan enters the lives of her characters at moments of self discovery and personal truth.  The characters and settings couldn't be more varied, but each story perfectly captures a moment, or moments, of reflection and meaning.  And, amidst stories of loss, loneliness and wasted time, Egan also manages to instill a sense of hope at the end of the stories.  No twists in the tale with this collection, just faultless writing that reveals something universal about human life and the personal struggle to find purpose, connection and meaning.  Yes I am rambling a bit but I loved these stories!

In The Stylist we are shown a moment in stylist Bernadette's life where, on a photo shoot in her thirties, she explores the choices she has made, their consequences, and what is great about her nomadic life.

In One Piece a young brother and sister struggle with the implications of a family tragedy years before where their mother was killed.  This is as moving a family story as you could hope for and achieves, in its 16 pages, more than many novels, in terms of conveying a story of love and sacrifice.

In Puerto Vallarta a sixteen year old girl faces the dilemma of her young life when she is confronted by the deception of her much loved father and recognises her mother's isolation and strength for the first time.

Interestingly a number of the stories occur on holidays.  This is a marvellous device, as it naturally lends itself to the process of self reflection and hopes for the future.  In Letter to Josephine, this idea is explored further, when a woman, on one of many luxurious holidays with her husband, considers the choices they both have made and the aspects of themselves they have left behind and can no longer access.

I got the impression that this collection is the result of many years work; all of the stories are so thoughtfully conceived and elegantly executed.  A Visit From the Goon Squad is Jennifer Egan's latest work of fiction and I can't wait to get my hands on it.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Review: Sister by Rosamund Lupton

I have mixed feelings about this novel.  I enjoyed it up to a point.  The premise is quite compelling; Beatrice, who is living and working in New York with her fiance, receives a phone call from her mother, back home in the UK, telling her that her younger sister, Tess, has gone missing.  Beatrice jumps on the next plane to London to find her sister.

 I really enjoyed the first half of the book where Bea immerses herself in the life her younger sister Tess has left behind, to try and understand what has become of her.  The story explores what it means to be an older sister and how this often gives the older sister a sense of responsibility and superiority, however misplaced feelings of "knowing best" might be.  There were other themes about relationships of many sorts, that were explored successfully in the novel.

At some point, maybe a half to two thirds of the way through, the narrative devices the author uses, just became too prominent and clunky for me.  The entire novel is told as a letter from Beatrice to her missing sister.  At first I could go along with it, but as we discover that the narrator has withheld information that it doesn't really make sense for her to have withheld, except for the purpose of the whodunit, I began to lose patience.

There were other issues that impaired my enjoyment of this novel.  Some of the writing was beautiful and at other times is was jarring.  I found the quality of the writing very inconsistent and at times downright awkward.  For instance on p.255 Beatrice describes a psychiatrist's dishevelled clothes as "He was wearing a white coat this time, but is was crumpled and a little stained, and he seemed even more scruffily hopeless."  The scruffily hopeless grated on me the first time and then she repeats it on p. 259, describing the same psychiatrist, "He was just too decent and scruffily hopeless to be connected to violence."  I mean honestly!  And no, I am not normally this nitpicking, but I felt let down, because the novel held such promise. What began really well, with good character development and good writing, ended poorly, with a cliched, overly sentimental feel. It lost me.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Book Blogger Hop

Book Blogger Hop
Well it is Friday, and time for the Book Blogger Hop which is hosted by Jennifer over at Crazy For Books.  The question this week to get people started is about April Fools Day.  Have you pranked or been pranked?  I am not much of a practical joker so I can't say I have.  Here in Australia the radio stations went through a phase where they rang people and pretended to be someone else, live on air, known as a "Gotcha Call."  I hated these because I often just felt so sorry for the person who was being tricked.

Anyway I hope you have a very enjoyable weekend :)