Old Favourite: Case Histories by Kate Atkinson

We never thought there’d be a new Jackson Brodie novel. After four brilliant mysteries (and a superb television adaptation starring Jason Isaacs), we thought Atkinson had called it a day, returning to the historical literary fiction she’s so good at. Then nine years since the last Brodie was published, out came Big Sky and the crowds all cheered.

I haven’t got my hands on the new book yet, wanting to do things properly and reread the previous four. I’ve had them there on the bookcase waiting for a special occasion. So I picked up Case Histories thinking, I know what happens so will I still enjoy it?

The story gets off to a fairly gentle, atmospheric start, with the setting of Cambridge during a summer heatwave, following a family of young girls, the elder three doting on the youngest and sweetest, little Olivia. Then the unthinkable happens – little Olivia goes missing.

Thirty years later, Olivia’s sisters, Amelia and Julia, make a discovery that prompts them to hire a private detective. Enter Jackson Brodie – ex-army and-ex police and with a ton of baggage regarding his ex-wife, his eight-year-old daughter, to say nothing of the tragedy of his childhood.

Two more cases hit Jackson’s books at the same time: a grieving man haunted by the murder of his daughter ten years before; a woman who has lost touch with the niece she promised to look out for when her sister was arrested for killing her husband.

The cases shake Jackson out of the stupor that has beset him as he spends long days surveilling an air hostess on behalf of her jealous husband and being at the beck and call of a crazy cat-lady who neglects to pay him. Through the book, someone seems intent on killing Jackson, so the story is livened up by several fights.

Not that it needs enlivening as the story sparkles with humour and terrific characters. They are all notable for various reasons: Mr Wyre’s devotion to his dead daughter mirrors the powerful bond and fear Jackson feels over his own daughter, Marlee, who at eight is pert and has a habit of blurting things out at the wrong time. Julia and Amelia are eccentric opposites – Julia’s outrageous flirting adding to the humour of the book, contrasting with the awkward spinsterishness of her sister. Binky, the crazy cat lady, is a treat for her old colonial airs, and has an odd connection with the sisters and the secrets surrounding them.

I loved this book a second time around. Having finished it, I could pick it up and start it all over again – it was that good. Being character driven rather than plot driven, Case Histories is nevertheless a complete page-turner. The prose is all you could wish for too – smart, witty and honed to perfection.

And then there’s Jackson. He’s an archetypal sleuth – troubled, with a messy past; he’s clever but gets into scrapes through his dogged determination to keep digging. And he’s got that Yorkshire no-nonsense manner that makes relationships with women difficult as he struggles to articulate his feelings (while women readers find him totally gorgeous). It’s no wonder Atkinson brought him back for more outings and even after nine years, the new book’s popularity would suggest he’s a welcome return. Case Histories is a rare five star read from me.

Quick Review: The Summer After the Funeral by Jane Gardam

funeralWhen I went on holiday recently, I packed an assortment of books knowing I would have a few quiet hours away from the Internet and Netflix. I usually like to include an old favourite – you don’t want anything that will be too hard to get into on holiday – and that usually means Anne Tyler, one or two Agatha Christies or a Jane Gardam.

The Summer After the Funeral is a short novel about a family coming to terms with the death of their father, an elderly clergyman. Rev. Price had a kind of allure with women and fathered three children in his dotage, but unfortunately, Mrs Price and her family must leave the rectory to her husband’s replacement. She concocts a convoluted scheme of passing her children round to various acquaintances and family for the summer while she goes job hunting. Continue reading “Quick Review: The Summer After the Funeral by Jane Gardam”

I Must Go Down to the Sea Again…

It’s Sea Week – yes, we do this every year – and it made me think about some of the books I’ve enjoyed that are set on or near the sea. Here’s a small sampling:

C S Forester’s Hornblower books

When you start with Mr Midshipman Hornblower, the first book in the series, it’s hard to stop until you’ve read a good half-dozen of the novels. Maybe it’s because some of my ancestors were in the Navy at a similar time, (that is, the Napoleonic Wars and decades following), but I find Foresters’ accounts of sea battles and his main character’s tactical ingenuity really exciting. Forester also develops Hornblower’s character as a man, a husband, lover and father, revealing the difficulties of being away at sea for years at a time.  Apparently the real-life figure of Thomas Cochrane (later Lord Dundonald) inspired the Hornblower character. Continue reading “I Must Go Down to the Sea Again…”

Thursday’s Old Favourite: Martha Grimes’s Inspector Jury Novels

Martha Grimes is an American author who writes a mystery series featuring Scotland Yard detective, Richard Jury. She’s quite an old hand at it, has done her research, and each novel in this series (to date she’s up to No. 24) is named after a different English pub, while many feature a different part of England. They are a wonderful mix of cosy crime (English country life, quaint characters, charming locations) and grim murder. The crimes are varied and can be quite chilling – I’m not sure I would ever read The Lamorna Wink a second time – while the plots are inventive.

Here’s what I particularly like about the series: Continue reading “Thursday’s Old Favourite: Martha Grimes’s Inspector Jury Novels”

Book Review: Longbourn by Jo Baker

lbPride and Prejudice by Jane Austen is one of the most beloved of classics, and has been filmed and televised again and again. In Longbourn, Jo Baker takes the reader downstairs among the meal preparations, the endless laundry, boot-polishing and bell-answering by the hard-working servants, much of it shown from the point of view of Sarah, a maid in the Bennett household.

The events of the original book seem like the tip of the iceberg as far as physical activity is concerned – Mrs Bennett’s anxious hanky-wringing, Mr Bennett’s library brooding, Jane and Elizabeth’s thoughtful chats and needlework, while gentlemen call and invitations are answered.

It all drives such an effort in keeping up appearances, the work of which falls to the small staff of Mr and Mrs Hill and two maids, one of whom, Polly, is just a child. Their working day seems to stretch forever, and the reader feels the pain of Sarah’s chilblains and her yearning to see something of the world. Continue reading “Book Review: Longbourn by Jo Baker”

Thursday’s Old Favourite: The Cazalet Chronicles

The Cazalet Chronicles is a kind of historical saga set in England around the years of World War Two. The great thing about it is that there is such a large cast of characters and multiple plot threads, that every time I read it there is more to discover. It follows the Cazalet family of three sons, Hugh, Edward and Rupert, and their families – particularly daughters Polly, Louise and Clary – who each take up a chunk of the narrative. There’s also the unmarried sister/aunt, Villy, as well as elderly parents which provide a link with the past.  Howard published the Chronicles in the 1990s and they were massively successful, with a follow-up book, All Change, in 2013 about the same characters some years later.

What I really like about it: Continue reading “Thursday’s Old Favourite: The Cazalet Chronicles”

Thursday’s Old Favourite: Lady Oracle by Margaret Atwood

9780385491082

I used to read Margaret Atwood avidly at one time. She is undoubtedly one of the world’s literary greats, and books like The Handmaid’s Tale, first published in 1987, have found a new readership with its dystopian themes that are oddly resonant today.

But of all her books, it is Lady Oracle that I seem to come back to time and again. It’s heroine, Joan Foster, is a romance writer with a bunch of secrets and a life that regularly gets out of control. When she receives a blackmail threat, Joan reacts true to form by running away. She does this by staging her own death and flees to Italy. The novel pieces together her unhappy childhood; her affair with a Polish count who inspires her to write gothic romances; her marriage to Arthur who seems to be the opposite in so many ways to Paul. Continue reading “Thursday’s Old Favourite: Lady Oracle by Margaret Atwood”

Thursday’s Old Favourite: Case Histories by Kate Atkinson

caseYes, I know they put Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie novels on television and the series was so memorable you can probably remember the broad shape of each plot. But even if you can remember the ending, as soon as you pick up one of the books – and let’s start with the first one: Case Histories – you know you are in for a really good time.

In case you’ve forgotten, Jackson Brodie is a private investigator living in Cambridge, a failed marriage behind him and trying to be a good father to a daughter he only sometimes sees. He’s middle-aged and smokes but fortunately keeps himself in shape because someone is out to kill him. On his books are a bunch of cold cases when two eccentric sisters ask him to look into what happened to their baby sister thirty years ago.

What I like about this book:

  • This is a really intricately plotted mystery interweaving a bunch of story threads so that you have to keep your wits about you.
  • The character of Brodie who is almost your classic troubled PI – the smoking and broken marriage are dead giveaways – but he’s just so much more interesting than that. Perhaps it’s because he comes from the North.
  • All the characters are interesting, have strong backstories and are richly rendered on the page.
  • Best of all, I love Atkinson’s writing. It shows that she has won the Man Booker a couple of times. She really crafts her prose and yet at the same time, it is lively and readable.
  • Stephen King said it was the best crime novel of the decade – and he could be right.

Thursday’s Old Favourite: The Hollow by Agatha Christie

the hollowWhenever I am stuck for something to read, or need a cosy novel to cheer me up, I tend to dip into my extensive Agatha Christie collection. I know I’ve read them before numerous times, and can probably remember ‘whodunit’, but the good ones offer more than just the mystery of the crime. One of my favourites is The Hollow, a classic country house murder mystery, where the reader can depend the murderer is one of the guests invited for the weekend. Of course, it’s never one of the servants, so no one ever bothers to investigate them!

What I like about it:

  • Lucy Ankatell is one of Christie’s more amusing hostesses – she is a terrible snob but gives out enough self-deprecating humour for this to be forgivable.
  • There is a good reason for almost everyone to have killed the victim, so because they’re all friends and family, the suspects muddy the waters of Poirot’s investigation.

Continue reading “Thursday’s Old Favourite: The Hollow by Agatha Christie”