Review 1863: Not the End of the World

I was fairly sure I had read everything by Kate Atkinson, but I couldn’t remember Not the End of the World. So, I decided to revisit it.

This collection of stories is a relatively early book. Some of the stories are apocalyptic or macabre, some have an element of magical realism, some are whimsical, some capture a moment in ordinary life. Although the stories stand alone, some of them are linked by recurring characters or by more subtle means. I suspect, if you were very attentive, you could find many links. For example, in the first story, “Charlene and Trudi Go Shopping,” the two have a conversation about wedding favors that is repeated in “Wedding Favors” between two different characters. And is the accident driven past by a character in one story the one that kills another character in another story?

Atkinson’s prose is, as always, witty and vivid. I found a few of the characters, like the battling teenage siblings in “Dissonance,” irritating but realistic. On the other hand, a boy who looks like a fish turns out to be the son of Triton. A bold girl removes a cloak from an old lady and the old lady disintegrates. A dead woman tries to get back her life. An adopted alley cat grows bigger and bigger and bigger.

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Review 1451: Big Sky

I always buy anything by Kate Atkinson as soon as it comes out, but I was especially pleased to learn there was another Jackson Brodie novel. I think her last three books have put her in another category altogether, but it’s fun to see Jackson again after an absence of nine years.

Jackson is out with his son Nathan when he spots a young girl being picked up by a man in a car. She is young enough to sport a backpack with rainbows and unicorns, which he finds the next day in a bay near his home in Bridlington. The police don’t seem to be interested.

Later, he is hired by Crystal Holroyd to find out who is following her in a silver BMW. When Crystal’s kids are threatened, this case becomes more serious.

Jackson also stops a man from jumping off a cliff. This man is Vince Ives, who has lost his job and was being divorced by his wife until his wife is found murdered. Now, of course, the police suspect him of murder.

More is going on than that, though, as a series of coincidences leads Jackson to discover a human trafficking operation.

Atkinson’s mysteries are more quirky than otherwise, following lots of threads that end up being connected (some of them) at least by the presence of Jackson himself. In the meantime, we’re entertained by the musings of Jackson and some of his more likable fellow characters. Another entertaining read for us by Atkinson.

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A God in Ruins

Review 1355: Transcription

Cover for TranscriptionBest of Ten!
Things are not always what they seem in Transcription, Kate Atkinson’s latest novel, but it isn’t until the last pages of the book that you understand what’s going on. For this novel, Atkinson returns to the time period that was so fruitful for her last two, World War II.

Juliet Armstrong hearkens back to 1940, when she becomes, at 18, a transcriptionist for a team in MI5 that is bugging the meetings of Fascist sympathizers acting as fifth columnists. She is at once extremely naive yet clever and prone to lying. She has a crush on her handsome boss, Perry Gibbons, and does not understand that he is using her as a beard. The team’s work centers on Godfrey Toby, who has infiltrated a group of Nazi sympathizers.

In 1950, Juliet is working for BBC radio on a children’s show, but she occasionally harbors refugees from Communist Europe for her old bosses. One day, she spots Mr. Toby in the park, and he pretends not to know her. Later, she receives a note that says, “You will pay for what you did.” She fears that her life during the war is catching up with her.

Transcription seems much more straightforward than Atkinson’s last two books, but Atkinson always has something up her sleeve. The last few pages turn the novel on its head, but getting there is a pleasure. Atkinson finds some sly humor in the mundanity and ineptness of the spying operation and entertains us with Juliet’s amusing turn of thought and exactness of expression. I loved this book.

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Day 718: A God in Ruins

Cover for A God in RuinsBest Book of the Week!
In my opinion, Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life was absolutely the best book I read in 2013. It is the story of Ursula Todd, who dies and comes back to life until she accomplishes her goals. A God in Ruins is about her beloved brother Teddy. Atkinson describes it as a companion piece rather than a sequel.

Like Life After Life, Teddy’s story dwells on the effects on his life of World War II, during which Teddy is an RAF bomber pilot. Although the novel covers his entire life in a nonsequential, rambling order, clearly the events of the war are a major focus to which he keeps returning.

During the war he makes himself a promise that if he lives through it, he will always be kind. And he is, to his sisters, his matter-of-fact scientist wife, and his unlikable daughter Viola. When his daughter fails spectacularly at child-rearing, his home is a harbor for his two grandchildren.

Although Teddy does not have Ursula’s ability to shape her own future, during the war he flies so many missions without being killed that his comrades deem him invincible. And in later life his daughter comes to fear he will live forever.

I can’t explain why A God in Ruins is such a wonderful follow-up to Life After Life without giving too much away. Its focus is on the bombing campaign against Germany, and it explores the ethical issues of that campaign, which killed many German civilians. It also shows the waste of the  young men sent to pursue it, sometimes in conditions almost guaranteeing they won’t return. And the terror of these young men.

Atkinson is deft in her depiction of believable characters and is also a beautiful, inventive writer. It’s quite possible that A God in Ruins may be my favorite book of 2015.

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Day 326: Life After Life

Cover for Life After LifeBest Book of the Week! Year!

From the descriptions of this book, I wasn’t sure I would like it even though I usually enjoy Kate Atkinson, a very playful writer. But what a great book–completely engrossing, oddly funny, and immensely satisfying.

Ursula Todd is born on a snowy night in 1910, but the umbilical cord is wrapped around her throat, so she dies. On the same night, Ursula is born again, but this time she lives. As she gets older, she faces various hazards, some of which she does not survive. Each time she is born again, on the same snowy night.

Through vignettes during the course of Ursula’s life, Atkinson skillfully and compellingly weaves the story of how small decisions in life can affect larger issues. We know a very large issue is coming up from the beginning, because in the first scene of the novel, Ursula assassinates Adolf Hitler and is killed in turn by his men.

Life After Life is a stunningly inventive novel about choice, fate, free will, and the nature of time, which Ursula explains to her psychiatrist (who believes in reincarnation) is not a circle but a palimpsest–a manuscript that has been overwritten but on which you can still see some of the writing.

I found this novel amazing, having never read anything quite like it. It is fascinating, funny, touching, and thought-provoking. I personally am going to miss Jackson Brodie, but Atkinson has launched herself far beyond him.

Day 54: Started Early, Took My Dog

Cover for Started EarlyKate Atkinson’s mysteries featuring Jackson Brodie are always complex and carefully plotted. The somewhat hapless Brodie is a “semi-retired” private investigator who usually works in Edinburgh, but Started Early, Took My Dog takes him back to his home town of Leeds in Yorkshire.

Jackson Brodie is trying to locate the family of Hope McMasters, a woman who was adopted in the 1970’s at the age of two. In doing so, he has stumbled upon the story of an old crime–a prostitute was murdered and the child found with her disappeared.

Tracy Waterhouse, a retired detective who works as a security guard at a mall, was originally on that case and always worried about the child. On impulse, Tracy purchases another abused child from a junkie prostitute. When Jackson tries to find her to ask her about the old crime, she thinks he is after her for kidnapping and flees.

Two separate groups of people appear to be chasing Tracy–or maybe Jackson. And what does Tracy’s friend Barry know about the crime? And how is Tillie Squires, an old actress who is going senile, involved in everything? And then there’s the dog.

Atkinson’s mysteries are edgy and well written, as well as humorous. She spends more time on characterization than the usual mystery novel, creating interesting individuals. The novel changes between viewpoint and time to tell the complex, interweaved stories about identity.