Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Review: Case Histories by Kate Atkinson

I first read Kate Atkinson's Behind the Scenes at the Museum more than 20 years ago and was impressed by the creativity and writing talent she displayed in those pages. But I didn't read her following books, in part because she started writing the Jackson Brodie series (Case Histories is the first book in that series) and I avoided all mysteries like the plague for a lot of years. Then I read her masterful Life After Life, which reminded me of what an impressive writer she is. But again, even though I've started dipping my toe into mysteries if I think I won't be pushed too close to nightmare territory (and that territory is fairly large and comprehensive in my life), I still didn't go back to the mysteries because the first one, this one, looked like it had the potential to cross that line. And then a group of friends decided to read it together. And I remembered how wonderful her writing is. And I decided to give it a try. And I liked it.

Opening with three seemingly unrelated case histories separated by many years, these cold cases become the backbone of main character Jackson Brodie's investigations. Jackson served in the army before becoming a police officer and now a private investigator. His own life is complicated, a tragedy in his childhood, a failed marriage, on-going custody issues with his ex-wife over his beloved young daughter, and an investigation business that isn't making any money. In fact, one of his most consistent clients is the elderly, genteel but racist Binky Rain, who is convinced that her cats are being stolen, and a husband convinced that his flight attendant wife is cheating on him despite the fact that Jackson has assured him she's not. Then one by one, the case histories presented in the opening chapters land in Jackson's lap. All of a sudden he's investigating three year old Olivia Land's 1970 disappearance at the behest of two of her surviving sisters, the 1994 unsolved murder of Laura Wyre at the behest of Laura's desperately grieving father Theo, and the unknown whereabouts of her baby niece after her sister Michelle killed her husband by splitting his head open with an ax in 1979 at the behest of Michelle's sister Shirley. Although there is only new evidence in the case of little Olivia's disappearance, evidence that only surfaced recently after the elderly Mr. Land died, Jackson isn't confident that he'll manage to uncover the truth in any of the seemingly unrelated cases. He can't afford not to take the cases though, both monetarily and emotionally. And as he is investigating, there are several attempts on his life, adding yet another mystery to the the layers already present.

This is billed as a literary mystery and it is that. It is unlikely that readers will solve the cases themselves and as this is not strictly a whodunit but rather a case study of human beings, a deep look at the impact of violence on the people left behind, how the uncertainty shapes them, and the lives they carve out for themselves in the aftermath of tragedy, not being given all of the clues is beside the point. Atkinson delves deeply into not only Jackson, but also people most effected by the devastation of the crimes. Chapters are told focused on a close reading of Jackson, Amelia Land, Theo Wyre, and Caroline Weaver, including passages that are almost stream of consciousness, as each of the plot threads twist closer and closer to their resolution, either partial or whole. The novel has a complicated structure weaving together so many disparate plot lines and gathering them into a tight and deliberate single story.

Case Histories is a good introduction to Jackson, showing his past and his present, the way he works, those things that are most important in his life, and who he is. His ponderings on each of the cases reflect his worries and feelings for his daughter. This is a book about loss and family dynamics, the horrors human beings endure and those they inflict on others. It is a novel about the taken, the missing girls and women who disappear, who seldom, if ever, get justice. The case histories that the novels open with do get closure in the end, where they are retold with their heartbreaking, sometimes ugly, truths fully on display. The writing is gorgeous but the structure of the novel may mean it's not for everyone. It is the first in a series, so plot threads from Jackson's life are left unresolved. The victims in the case histories do come across as fairly stereotypical but luckily Atkinson more fully draws the remaining characters and even makes the subjects of those case histories (with the possible exception of Olivia) much more realistic as the novel goes on, bringing them off the flat page of their police files. I don't know if I intend to read more of the Jackson Brodie mysteries, but I enjoyed this one and was pleased to see that Atkinson's skill as a writer was evident here.

Monday, January 27, 2020

Review: St. Francis Society for Wayward Pets by Annie England Noblin

It's a common saying that bad things come in threes. Once two bad things happen, we hold our breath waiting for the third. Sometimes that third comes and we breathe out a sigh of relief because surely the universe is finished with us for now. And other times, things just keep piling on, like for the main character in Annie England Noblin's newest novel, St. Francis Society for Wayward Pets.

The newspaper where Maeve Stephens works as a sportswriter is bankrupt and everyone has lost their jobs. Then she, like the rest of the world, sees a You Tube clip of her baseball player boyfriend passionately kissing another woman before he calls to dump her. On her way out of the office, carrying her things in a box, she is robbed of the last $32.11 she has in her wallet, leaving her only her maxed out credit cards. But the universe isn't done with her because she ends up losing her apartment and having to move home to her parents' house. And then a woman named Alice calls and tells Mae that her birth mother has died, the birth mother that Mae once wanted so desperately to connect with, her only blood family. For reasons only known to her, she decides to drive the four hours from Seattle to Timber Creek, Washington to attend the funeral. And why not? She's 36 years old, unemployed, not in a relationship, and living at home where she has a slightly contentious relationship with her mother. Tiny Timber Creek and the people in it surprise her. She's even more surprised to find that Annabelle, her birth mother, has left Mae her home, her car, a small bank account, and her cranky cat. And she's most surprised of all to find that she decides to stay, at least for a while, sliding into her late mother's life in many ways.

The book mostly centers on Maeve, who has thus far made a life out of not fitting in and drifting directionlessly. Although she is in her mid-thirties, she is terribly immature and socially awkward. Her childhood was a happy one but she seems unable to give herself permission to be happy in her adult life. She is abrupt, speaks without thinking, and yet cares about the people around her. Her difficulty reconciling her image of a cold, uncaring Annabelle giving her up because she didn't want her with the warm and loving image the townspeople have of her late mother makes her come across as much younger than she is. Surely a woman of her age would understand that nothing is quite so simple and black and white as she had imagined. In addition to Maeve's first person narration, there are occasional short chapters interspersed in the text about Annabelle's life living with her friend Alice's family from just before she gets pregnant all the way through going home to Timber Creek after giving up her baby. The tension in these chapters is far higher than those from Maeve's perspective as the reader slowly starts to see what Annabelle's life was like, the tragedy in her background, the tenuous position she was in living with Alice's family, and why she gave Maeve up. It is hard to understand why Alice wouldn't have shared all of this with Maeve but then there are other secrets that aren't shared either, until they can no longer be hidden, but those are hidden out of caution.

The book has a lot of heavy topics like addiction, grief, adoption, animal abuse, and domestic abuse but keeps a light touch. There's humor (animals sporting pet sweaters), a little romance, a little mystery, and a little danger. There is quite a bit of knitting and a lot less animal content than the title would imply. The end of the book is fast and furious after a much slower paced beginning and middle, and suddenly catapults secondary plots into the forefront before wrapping everything up. The prologue and epilogue form a nice framing device, giving the reader one last glimpse into the Annabelle that Maeve never got to know, and the epilogue eases the reader out of the story gently and happily. Over all the story is a quick, light read but it might have benefited some from a slower, more even pace and a little more depth on the suddenly introduced pieces at the end.

**As this is an uncorrected proof, I am going to hope that the major plot continuity problem (Alice's mother has been dead for a couple of years according to a character early on in the book but then the story has Maeve delivering Ensure to Alice's mother's caregiver for a specific plot-related reason) was caught and fixed before the book actually went to print.

For more information about Annie England Noblin and the book, check our her author website, like her on Facebook, follow her on Twitter or Instagram, look at the book's Goodreads page, follow the rest of the blog tour, or look at the reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.

Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and publisher William Morrow for sending me a copy of this book to review.

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

This meme is hosted by Kathryn at Reading Date.

Books I completed over the past week are:

Beginning with Cannonballs by Jill McCroskey Coupe
A Sister's Courage by Molly Green
St. Francis Society for Wayward Pets by Annie England Noblin

Bookmarks are still living in the middle of:

The Authenticity Project by Clare Pooley

Reviews posted this week:

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

Books still needing to have reviews written (as opposed to the ones that are simply awaiting posting):

Case Histories by Kaye Atkinson
American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins
Midnight at the Blackbird Cafe by Heather Webber
The Mad Scientist's Guide to World Domination edited by John Joseph Adams
Beginning with Cannonballs by Jill McCroskey Coupe
A Sister's Courage by Molly Green
St. Francis Society for Wayward Pets by Annie England Noblin

Monday Mailbox

This past week's mailbox arrivals:

The Second Home by Christina Clancy came from St. Martin's Press.

I'm a total sucker for books that deal with summer homes and this one about a family deciding what to do about their Cape Cod home and the secrets and memories contained within it really calls to me.

The Jane Austen Society by Natalie Jenner came from St. Martin's Press.

I am a huge Jane Austen fan so this novel about the people of Chawton coming together no matter what their life looks like to create the Jane Austen Society is absolutely right up my alley.

Austen Years by Rachel Cohen came from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

I cannot wait to read this memoir paired with criticism of Austen's works!

Parakeet by Marie-Helene Bertino came from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

This sounds bonkers but the best kind of bonkers. It has a dead grandmother who speaks to her granddaughter through a parakeet and warns her not to marry her fiance but to instead go find her brother. Nuts, right?

Death at High Tide by Hannah Dennison came from Minotaur Books.

There's water on the cover so of course I'm attracted to it! This cozy mystery set off the coast of Cornwall in a hotel run by two sisters looks like a lot of fun.

The Love Scam by MaryJanice Davidson came from St. Martin's Press.

Sometimes you just want a romantic comedy like this one about a guy who wakes up in Venice with his bank account drained and a little girl claiming to be his daughter and the fun-loving woman who has brought the little girl to him.

Paris Never Leaves You by Ellen Feldman came from St. Martin's Press.

Alternating between a bookstore in Paris during WWII and 1950s New York in publishing, could this have hit my sweet spot any better?

The Paris Hours by Alex George came from Flatiron Books.

I've read and enjoyed George's A Good American so I am looking forward to this one about four people in Paris between the two world wars a lot.

Artifact by Arlene Heyman came from Bloomsbury Publishing.

About motherhood and biology, this novel about a woman who finds herself as a mother and in the lab sounds really enticing. (Plus, would you look at the wild, lacy things--corals? cells?  I guess I'll find out--on the cover?)

Crossings by Alex Landragin came from St. Martin's Press.

This three part novel that is designed to be read in two different directions reminds me of the unconventional construction of Cloud Atlas and since I loved that one, I am looking forward to this crazy genre bender too.

The Wrong Mr. Darcy by Evelyn Lozada with Holly Lorincz came from St. Martin's Press.

Pride and Prejudice in the basketball world? You're probably wondering how on earth. Me too and that's why I want to read it.

A Saint from Texas by Edmund White came from Bloomsbury Publishing.

Oh the suggested glamour of this cover! And it's about twin sisters, one to be Parisian nobility and one to be a Catholic nun. Sounds amazing, right?!

Network Effect by Martha Wells came from Tor.

Why do I want to read this? Because Murderbot, of course. (And I'm curious to see this unfold in a novel instead of a novella.)

Life Events by Karolina Waclawiak came from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

The idea of "exit guides," like the main character in this novel, someone who provides companionship and eases the end for terminally ill patients is completely intriguing.

Olive the Lionheart by Brad Ricca came from St. Martin's Press.

How could everyone not want to read the true story of an early twentieth century woman who heads to Africa to find her missing fiance and all of the adventures she faces on her search?

If you want to see the marvelous goodies in other people's mailboxes, make sure to visit Mailbox Monday and have fun seeing how we are all doing our part to keep the USPS and delivery services viable.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Review: Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

You know how they say there are two sides to every story? Well, in Lauren Groff's novel, Fates and Furies, this is literally true. Roughly half of the story of this couple and their marriage is told from the third person close perspective of husband Lotto (short for Lancelot) with the other half similarly narrated with a close focus on wife Mathilde. It's a structure that sets the reader up to believe one story and then to pull the rug out from under them to show another story, no less true, or perhaps more appropriately, no less false, than the first. And that intentionally slow revelation of more depth, more layers, than initially suspected, could have been amazing but for the characters and the obviously effortful, overwritten prose here. This came so highly recommended by someone I trust that I bought it in hardcover. But it wasn't all that the premise promised (or that my friend promised either). And now I will trust her recommendations just a little less.

Mathilde and Lotto know each other for the blink of an eye before they get married, a marriage between the handsome, talented man used to being catnip to women and the mysterious, secretive, and intriguing woman whose own talents will go unrecognized. Outsiders consider their marriage a happy and successful one but only the people inside a marriage know the truth of their private lives, what makes them tick, and the compromises they've made to be mostly content with each other. Lotto, who is the subject of the Fates portion of the book is narcissistic and stereotypical. His family is rich and when they cut him off for marrying Mathilde, he promptly becomes the most celebrated and successful playwright of his time, lauded to the moon and back. His portion of the book is a long string of sexual conquests, both from the past and with Mathilde, that do nothing for the story whatsoever.  (And lamentably, their descriptions are snooze-worthy.)  When the novel flips to Mathilde's section, titled Furies, the reader gets a very different view of their long marriage, a view that paints Mathilde as the more mature and intelligent, if self-effacing, half of the duo. This reimagining is not entirely successful.

The idea of a Rashoman style narrative (although with only the two perspectives rather than several) should have been interesting and effective. Instead, the book was overwrought and pretentious. There were authorial interjections (more in Lotto's section than in Mathilde's) that were clearly meant to mimic a Greek chorus but they were instead unnecessary and their information was obvious to any intelligent reader. If readers hadn't already gotten what the interjections shared, there was a lack somewhere, either in the writing or in the audience and as one of that audience, well, I know where my money is. Lotto's portion of the narrative was frequently interrupted by long, numbing excerpts from his plays, rambling reimaginings of Greek myths that break up the flow of the narrative. Ultimately, I just didn't care about Lotto, Mathilde, or the state of the lives or marriage at any point in the book. It was slow, boring, and even the secrets and the much touted twist were, in the end, just meh. This is a very polarizing book and people seem to either love it or hate it so hopefully anyone else choosing to read it will find it far more engaging than I did.

Waiting on Wednesday

This meme was hosted by Breaking the Spine and is meant to highlight some great pre-publication books we all can't wait to get our grubby little mitts on. I'm choosing to continue the tradition even though she has stopped.

Our Stop by Laura Jane Williams.

The book is being released by Avon on February 11, 2020.

The book's jacket copy says: What if you almost missed the love of your life?

Nadia gets the 7.30 train every morning without fail. Well, except if she oversleeps or wakes up at her friend Emma's after too much wine.

Daniel really does get the 7.30 train every morning, which is easy because he hasn't been able to sleep properly since his dad died.

One morning, Nadia's eye catches sight of a post in the daily paper:

To the cute girl with the coffee stains on her dress. I'm the guy who's always standing near the doors... Drink sometime?

So begins a not-quite-romance of near-misses, true love, and the power of the written word.

Monday, January 20, 2020

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

This meme is hosted by Kathryn at Reading Date.

Books I completed over the past week are:

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins
Midnight at the Blackbird Cafe by Heather Webber
The Mad Scientist's Guide to World Domination edited by John Joseph Adams

Bookmarks are still living in the middle of:

A Sister's Courage by Molly Green

Reviews posted this week:

Cloudwish by Fiona Wood
Carnegie's Maid by Marie Benedict
Aunty Lee's Delights by Ovidia Yu
Tell Me Three Things by Julie Buxbaum

Books still needing to have reviews written (as opposed to the ones that are simply awaiting posting):

Case Histories by Kaye Atkinson
American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins
Midnight at the Blackbird Cafe by Heather Webber
The Mad Scientist's Guide to World Domination edited by John Joseph Adams

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