Book Review: Human Croquet by Kate Atkinson

This was such an odd book. I started it a few months ago and had to put it aside as it simply didn’t engage me. Then, having finished another of Atkinson’s books (When WilHuman Croquetl There Be Good News) and not wanting to move away from her writing, I picked this one up again, started from the beginning once more, and couldn’t put it down.

Ostensibly the story of Isobel Fairfax, a young British woman who at an early age, along with her unattractive younger brother, Charles, “loses” her mother. Unlike Charles, Isobel appears to have the ability to slip through time, back to the Elizabethan period, and thus her life becomes this peculiar negotiation of time, space and people. Though the novel has this magic realist/mystical element it’s also a coming-of-age-story, a tale of familial and suburban dysfunction, murder, disappearances, secrets and lies, and an exploration of the ties that bind and tear us apart. The novel takes the reader on a remarkable journey through Isobel’s childhood, adolescence and that of her parents and forebears, exposing warts, flaws, mistakes, triumphs and tragedies.

Capturing the essence of the 1960s as well as war-time London, the characteristics of class, neighborhoods and the passion and heartbreak of relationships of all kind, this pseudo and quite dark fairy-tale is remarkable. Moving, haunting, at times funny, always strange and yet familiar, the novel shifts points of view from first to third person and a cocky omniscient narrator who through Isobel also functions like a Greek chorus, or a Shakespearian player setting the scene and passing commentary upon what unfolds. The book plays with reader expectations, genre, the notion of secrets, and in doing so examines the minutiae of the everyday, and explores the adult world from a child’s point of view and vice versa.

All the world and time is Atkinson’s stage, and this is certainly an ambitious and clever novel that offers alternative readings of not only scenes, but characters’ interpretations of events. What the reader accepts is up to her or him, but nothing is predictable.

The prose is simply lovely and some of the ideas expressed are timeless and erudite and have you reaching for a highlighter in order to recall them. This story won’t appeal to everyone, and it’s very different in so many ways from Atkinson’s other books, but if you cast aside expectations and go for the ride, it’s one you won’t forget in a hurry.

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Book Review: When Will There Be Good news? Kate Atkinson

I feel a bit sad this is the last time I will have the opportunity to “hang” with Kate Atkinson’s wonderful creation, the ex-army, ex-cop and PI Jackson Brodie. It’s not that this novel is the last in the series, but because I read them out of order (and that doesn’t affect the quality of the narrative or pleasure a reader gains from the prose and overalWhen Will There Be Good News? (Jackson Brodie, #3)l story arc), it’s the final one I get to enjoy until Atkinson pulls her keyboard out and gets another one written – and I wish she would tout de suite! Till them, it’s au revoir Jackson…

Just as well then that When Will There Be Good News is a fabulous, ripper of a read that incorporates a few narrative threads and some fascinating characters.

The novel opens with an idyllic scene of a mother and her three kids walking country lanes. Undercurrents involving marital discord quickly disturb this pastoral picture but not in a distressing way – more in that well, “life is like that” manner. When the chapter ends in utter tragedy and we’re catapulted thirty years hence, there’s a feeling of both horror and relief that we’re spared only, in typical and wonderful Atkinson fashion, we’re not because the past always, always infects the present and this novel is no different. Part of the sheer joy of reading is in seeing just how they are connected and what unfolds.

Enter Jackson Brodie who, hot on the heels of another failed relationship and the start of a new one is seeking proof of paternity. Travelling north to get the DNA required, it’s no surprise to those familiar with Brodie’s habits, that he ends up in the wrongest (is that a word?) of wrong places at the wrongest of wrong times with catastrophic consequences.

But it’s also his ability to do that –  turn up like a good penny –  that links the stories as does the wonderful character of teenage Reggie – a girl who, when all is said and done, should be morose, despondent and at the least an emo, but who is infected with both a fine mind and an indefatigable joy in life as well a loyalty that can only be found in the hound that ends up accompanying her everywhere. Oh, and in her employer who is a simply magnificent character. On reflection, Dr (call me “Jo”) Joanna is like an ice-berg… She presents a portion of herself to the world (and we discover the reasons for this), but it’s the seven-eights below the water to which we’re slowly introduced that offer threat and promise. But when you cannot see what lies below the surface, how do you know which it is? And what happens when parts float to the surface? (cue Jaws theme)…

I cannot give too much away here, but while Reggie connects the seemingly disparate threads of the novel, it’s the Dr who’s the heart of the tale – one that threatens to stop beating….

When Reggie and Jackson’s paths collide, you just know something important is going to occur. And it does and it’s brutal, soulful, and ultimately incredibly satisfying.

Add to this a mixture of amazing other characters, including the hard-nosed (but wanting love) DCI Louisa, and this is a stunning read. Sublimely written, neatly tied together, I couldn’t put this one down.

I just wish there was another JB to lose myself in again…

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Book Review: The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North

There has bThe First Fifteen Lives of Harry Augusteen a spate of books that deal with time travel and variations on the theme of the Bill Murray movie Groundhog Day (Life After Life by Kate Atkinson – sublime  – and The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells by Andrew Sean Greer – delightful – as recent examples (see my reviews)), so I was excited to find another in this, for want of a better term, cross-over genre (literary fiction, history, science-fiction/fantasy) that I really enjoy. The First Fifteen Lives of Harry North tells the tale of a man called a kalachakra, someone who is born at the same point in time over and over but with all the knowledge of his previous lives in tact – or at least, they emerge very early in the person’s new life, meaning he or she is quite precocious and able to avoid the mistakes of the past life and build on their understanding of the present, past and future.

As the blurb says, when the novel opens, an 11-year-old girl appears to Harry as he is on his death bed, warning him that the world is coming to an end and he must act (in his next lives) to prevent this. What a fabulous premise. In fact, the entire idea is marvellous and North is at pains to underpin this speculative narrative with science and acceptable possibilities. In order to do this, North takes us back to the beginning of Harry’s lives and to and fros between different ones, the people he meets, his successes and failures when it comes to using his accumulated knowledge wisely, and also takes the reader on sometimes long tangents into other kalachakra’s lives. We also meet the elusive and mysterious Chronos Club and some of its members. And so, the reader is immersed in the lives of Harry North – sometimes, this is an unputdownable experience, but other times, the novel feels weighted by its own cleverness and need to offer explanations and back-stories to gratify the most curious. I wasn’t sure this was always necessary and sometimes dialogue and reflection suffered from a degree of pretentiousness and long-windedness. Having said that, other times it was utterly gripping.

Overall, this story of a reluctant time-traveller and the fate of the world is also about humanity. It’s very philosophical as it explores ideas around power and knowledge and the ethics that these invite and demand while managing to tell a great story of sacrifice, choices, where they take us and the consequences of these.

Really enjoyable.


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Book Review: Started Early, Took My Dog by Kate Atkinson

Started Early, Took My Dog (Jackson Brodie, #4)

If the quirky title to this book doesn’t grab you, then the author might. This wonderful, insightful and unexpected tale of four different lives converging is by Kate Atkinson, an author of which I knew nothing until I read her amazing and moving, Life After Life. This book, recommended to me by a dear friend, is one in the Jackson Brodie (PI) series and, as the first I read about the eponymous and clever investigator, happens to be a doozy.

It commences with former cop and now shopping centre Security Guard, Tracey Waterhouse, rushing to resolve a problem and then behaving in a way that is completely out of character. Her act of madness (driven by kindness) sets off a chain of events over which she has no control and which rapidly disintegrate into a life and death situation.

In the meantime, there is a woman who doesn’t know her past and hires Brodie to uncover it, a cop with an all-but dead daughter for whom he grieves constantly, an aging actress whosedementia is ruining her career and thus life but in understated ways. Seemingly disconnected, the further Jackson investigates the crime he’s involved in, the more these disparate tales and lives begin to converge.

Peppered with wit, irony and flashes into human nature that you want to savour and repeat to others they are so apt, as well as heart-breaking and astute observations, this is a fabulous read. Someone described it in an earlier Goodreads review as the ‘intelligent reader’s beach read.’ Add to that it’s for anyone who loves beautiful writing, great plotting and losing oneself in other people’s stories and this is that book.

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Book Review: Case Histories by Kate Atkinson

ThisCase Histories (Jackson Brodie, #1) is the book that introduces readers to the wonderful and quirky Jackson Brodie, Kate Atkinson’s divorced father and Private Investigator who can’t seem to say ‘no’. Because of his inability to refuse someone in need, he finds himself investigating three seemingly disparate cases, all of which happened some time ago – a baby girl gone missing, a young mother losing control in a murderous rage and, finally, a lovely young woman who works in a busy office who finds herself in the wrong place at the wrong time with drastic consequences.

Each case is explored thoroughly and the reader accompanies Jackson as he peels back time and uncovers the contexts for each crime, the victims and perpetrators. While the cases are disturbing, there is still humour laced throughout, mainly through the character of the self-deprecating and much put upon Brodie who also has the capacity to offer great and unexpected insights into those he encounters and what he uncovers.

More than a crime or thriller novel, Case Histories is about the complexity of families, about love, trust, betrayal, but it’s also about what makes us tick and how simple it is for even the best plans and intentions to become derailed and tragedy strike. How a fuse can be lit and conflagration erupts. The writing is lovely, poetic and flowing, and the characters are fully rounded and thus easy to engage with and understand.

A terrific novel that offers so much to readers and which pushes the boundaries of crime fiction in wonderful ways.

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