Saturday, April 23, 2011

Case Histories by Kate Atkinson

Case Histories by Kate Atkinson, 2004

Kate Atkinson's Case Histories is a mystery in the same way that Pride and Prejudice is a romance, or Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is fantasy. It's a genre novel that expands, reconfigures and redefines its genre. Atkinson takes the conventions of the mystery genre and does something mildly revolutionary: she looks deeper.

For the majority of Case Histories' length, I was gearing up to announce it as the Best Thing I've Read in a While. I loved the characters, loved the style, loved the writing, and I could feel a great big shocker of an ending coming, something that would tie up all the loose ends and leave me floored.

It didn't come. The ending was graceful and emotionally resonant, but not at all what I was expecting. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? I'm not sure I know.

The beginning of the novel introduces three entirely separate crimes: the disappearance of a young girl in the 1970s, a seemingly random knife attack on a law firm and the ax murder of a young farmer by his equally young wife. In the present day, run-down Cambridge private investigator Jackson Brodie begins investigating all three cases, even as someone desperately attempts to assassinate him.

Being a big reader of mysteries and someone who generally understands how they work, I assumed that the three cases would intersect, proving to be separate pieces of the same puzzle. I spent the entire novel trying (and failing) to find any way that the three cases could be connected.

Well, (SPOILER ALERT) it turns out that they aren't connected at all, at least not in the nuts-and-bolts way that you'd think. The solutions to the actual mysteries are all very easy to figure out on their own; they're only challenging when you're trying to connect them together. I'm not sure whether this makes Atkinson a cheat or a brilliant master of deception. I do know that Case Histories is not really a very good mystery in the classic sense.

So why is it still such an excellent book?

First of all, Atkinson is a terrific writer and she brings her characters to life with incredible vibrancy. She tells the story from the perspectives of four characters: Jackson, Amelia, the guilty sister of the missing toddler, Theo, the grieving father of a murdered office temp and Michelle, a woman attempting to fit back into society after being released from prison.

All of these characters are confronted by the wounds of past violence, all of them scarred by murder. Atkinson draws them with humor and grace and an incredibly subtle sense of humanity. Wrapping such careful character studies in an engaging mystery results in a book that's enjoyable on two totally different levels (and I've said, the literary merits of the novel are more impressive than the plotting).

Atkinson's deft prose tugs at the heartstrings without resorting to melodrama, and her mixture of sadness and humor is fabulously effective. There's something both funny and heartbreaking about the pathetic depths to which her characters sink: Theo's attempts to hold on to his daughter's memory, Amelia's bizarre psycho-sexual hang-ups, Jackson's existential loneliness and his frustration over his ex-wife's new persona. There's some flat-out wonderful writing here:

Jackson started to worry about being late. On the way back to the car park he had to fight his way against a herd of foreign-language students, all entirely oblivious to the existence of anyone else on the planet except other adolescents. Cambridge in summer, invaded by a combination of tourists and foreign teenagers, all of whom were put on earth to loiter, was Jackson's idea of hell. The language students all seemed to be dressed in combats, in khaki and camouflage, as if there were a war going on and they were the troops (God help us if that was the case). And the bikes, why did people think bikes were a good thing? Why were cyclists so smug? Why did cyclists ride on pavements when there were perfectly good cycle lanes? And who thought it was a good idea to rent bicycles to Italian adolescent language students? If hell did exist, which Jackson was sure it did, it would be governed by a committee of fifteen-year-old Italian boys on bikes. ---(page 136-137)

Case Histories is a fantastic literary novel, as well as a riveting--if ultimately unsatisfying--mystery. Its characters and style are memorable; the plotting, while gripping at the time, is less so. Still, this is a major novel in a lot of ways and I'm pleased to see that Atkinson has written several more Jackson Brodie novels. If she can put together a better plot, she'll be utterly unstoppable.

NEXT UP: A Breath of Snow and Ashes, the sixth Outlander novel.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh, 1945

Evelyn Waugh holds a rather odd place in the literary world. He is not a household name like Dickens, Austen, Kipling or Orwell, but nor is he exactly obscure. He's one of those writers who are probably popular with college professors and obsessive Anglophiles, but largely unknown to the general reading public. Until I read Brideshead Revisited, I had heard his name in passing, but didn't know much about who he was or what he wrote.

I was expecting either a comedy-of-manners pre-WWII romance or a slightly grittier story of the war itself. I was surprised to find such a dense, rich narrative, an eclectic, surprisingly dark story, infused with shots of buoyant wit and characters that are both eccentrically Dickensian and three-dimensional.

The prologue shows us a middle-aged Charles Ryder, a former artist turned captain in the army during the heart of the war. Leading his men on a training exercise in the English countryside, he accidentally stumbles over the estate of Brideshead, a place that triggers memories of his life, beginning with his college days. At college, he becomes fast friends with Sebastian Flyte, the quirky son of the disgraced lord of Brideshead. As the years wear on, Ryder finds himself more and more entwined with Brideshead and the strange, fractured Flyte family whose severe Catholicism represents either eternal salvation or lifelong torment for them all.

Brideshead is a book that was made to be savored, considered, experienced slowly. Waugh proceeds at his own pace, allowing the characters to develop over time. His style is fascinating, and liable to change at any minute. Some of his prose is luxuriously descriptive (and few authors that I've read can spin out a metaphor as well or as long as Waugh can) and some of it is fast, witty and sharp as a whip. Waugh is truly very funny, when he chooses to be. A lengthy sequence in which Ryder visits his highly eccentric father, who passive-aggressively attempts to make the visit as unpleasant as possible for his son, is a glorious piece of comedy that, in the grand tradition of English picaresque novels, is utterly unrelated to the plot:

It was a gruesome evening, and I was astonished to find, when at last the party broke up, that it was only a few minutes after eleven. My father helped himself to a glass of barley-water and said: "What dull friends I have! You know, without the spur of your presence I should never have roused myself to invite them. I have been very negligent about entertaining lately. Now that you are paying me such a long visit, I will have many such evenings. You liked Miss Gloria Orme-Herrick?"


"No? Was it her little moustache you objected to or her very large feet? Do you think she enjoyed herself?"


"That was my impression also. I doubt if any of our guests will count this as one of their happiest evenings. That young foreigner played atrociously, I thought. Where can I have met him? And Miss Constantia Smethwick--where can I have met
her? But the obligations of hospitality must be observed. As long as you are here, you shall not be dull."

Strife was internecine during the next fortnight, but I suffered the more, for my father had greater reserves to draw on and a wider territory for manoeuvre, while I was pinned to my bridgehead between the uplands and the sea. He never declared his war aims, and I do not to this day know whether they were purely punitive-- whether he had really at the back of his mind some geopolitical idea of getting me out of the country, as Aunt Philippa had been driven to Bordighera and my cousin Melchior to Darwin, or whether, as seems most likely, he fought for the sheer love of a battle, in which indeed he shone.
---(pages 71-72)

Despite some highly funny passages, Brideshead is definitely not a comic novel. It's really more of a Shakespearean tragedy, the story of the Marchmains and their crumbling faith, as well as Charles Ryder and his complete lack of any. Waugh, a devout Catholic, makes the interesting choice of making his main character a staunch agnostic. The rituals and beliefs of Catholicism are seen through Ryder's skeptical, cynical eyes; only at the end of the novel does he begin to find glimmers of true spirituality.

Waugh's agenda is obviously pro-Catholic, but he employs subtlety to mask it. He's not preachy and forceful; he allows his story to suggest his own morals and beliefs, rather than just coming out and saying it. Really, the novel could be read two ways: the Catholic religion is either the only way to find true happiness and salvation, or it's the surest way to encounter guilt, misery and emptiness. Powerful stuff, and thought-provokingly handled, too. The ability to weave this sort of a motif into a story and still have a story is rare.

Waugh's characters continually surprise with their complexity, particularly Ryder, who begins the novel as the standard, detached narrator of English fiction, and ends it as the book's true central character. The other main character is the Marchmain family, who can be viewed as a single, multi-faceted entity. Each member is a piece of the puzzle. I find Brideshead's detached quirkiness and Sebastian's bizarre mixture of childlike innocence and cynicism to be particularly fascinating.

Brideshead Revisited is a meaty piece of literature, gorgeously written, as well as moving and somewhat profound. It's also highly readable, thank goodness, one of those books that can be studied and appreciated or simply enjoyed. The questions it poses are serious and weighty, but Waugh presents these questions with the finesse of a superior craftsman. He tells an excellent story, too.

NEXT UP: Case Histories by Kate Atkinson

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

A Clash of Kings by George R. R. Martin

A Clash of Kings by George R. R. Martin, 1999

Silent, Davos tended to his course. The shore was a snarl of rocks, so he was taking them well out across the bay. He would wait for the tide to turn before coming about. Storm's End dwindled behind them, but the red woman seemed unconcerned. "Are you a good man, Davos Seaworth?" she asked.

Would a good man be doing this? "I am a man," he said. "I am kind to my wife, but I have known other women. I have tried to be a father to my sons, to help make them a place in this world. Aye, I've broken laws, but I've never felt evil until tonight. I would say my parts are mixed, m'lady. Good and bad."

"A grey man," she said. "Neither white nor black, but partaking of both. Is that what you are, Ser Davos?"

"What if I am? It seems to me that most men are grey."

"If half of an onion is black with rot, it is a rotten onion. A man is good, or he is evil."
--- (page 620)

A Game of Thrones was an astonishingly wonderful novel, one of the finest fantasy novels I've ever read. The sequel, A Clash of Kings, had an incredibly tall order ahead of it. The story that the first novel had begun was so incredibly intricate and such an intoxicating mixture of the sweepingly epic and the deeply personal. I honestly wasn't sure if the series could keep up with the incredible amount of momentum that it had built up.

I shouldn't have worried. Clash, like Game, is bowl-you-over good. So sweeping in scope that it makes the first book's perspective look narrow, Clash is a whole lotta novel. There are no less than nine separate character perspectives and even though the book is nearly a thousand pages, there's barely enough space to cram in all the betrayals, battles, politics, assassinations, magic and sex.

The Seven Kingdoms is in complete disarray after the events of Game. Robb Stark has named himself King of the North and is rallying his fellow northmen against King Joffrey, a puppet of the powerful Lannister family. The former king's two brothers Renly and Stannis have also amassed separate armies in dual bids to take the throne. None of these combatants are even aware of Daenerys Targaryen, who is using her three newborn dragons to find military support across the sea.

Meanwhile, Jon Snow accompanies the Night's Watch beyond the Wall in search of a rumored army of wildlings, Catelyn Stark struggles to keep her splintered family safe, Tyrion Lannister braves the complex world of royal politics, Arya goes on the run, Sansa attempts to escape from King's Landing and former Stark ward Theon Greyjoy plots revenge against the Stark family. And that's just the Cliff Notes version, believe me.

The nature of Martin's storytelling unfortunately requires some characters to get slightly less compelling storylines. For instance, in this book, Tyrion and Arya get absolutely fantastic narratives, while characters like Jon and Daenerys get a bit shortchanged. The sheer volume of the storytelling necessitates a slightly choppier flow than in the first novel, which is one of the few small problems that detract from the book's overall effect.

Another of these small problems is the staggering amount of information dumped on the reader. There are quite literally hundreds of characters to remember, dozens of houses and families, some of them long-dead. I'm usually pretty adept at remembering details, but even I was sometimes confused by the intricacies of this family or that group. Martin piles on perhaps a few too many extraneous elements, which wasn't nearly as much of a problem in Game.

The plotting is also a bit of an issue. Martin is very good at suddenly turning everything we thought we knew on its head, but compared to Game, Clash maintains the status quo for most of its length and events move a bit more slowly. This is more a symptom of the series' growing complexity and interconnectivity than anything else, but it did make for some occasional, brief moments of tediousness.

Okay, the rest of this review will be devoted to praise, because Clash is still staggeringly wonderful. Martin really does have the ability to generate nearly unbearable suspense, and then suddenly twist everything so that it's either moving or funny as hell. He wears a lot of hats. He can be gut-wrenchingly brutal or hair-raisingly thrilling, but his true gift is the sharp, subtle little insights he provides into his characters and his refusal to provide the reader with anything simple or one-dimensional.

Despite all of the epic struggles and larger-than-life conflict, I'm starting to see this series as more of a stealthy morality play. Is anyone in the series doing the right thing? Is good and evil something that can be defined? Do good intentions matter in the end? These are questions that are not posed outright, but are slipped in with cunning. What are we to make of these people? Are they heroes to be cheered, villains to be booed, or are they all a bit of both?

I don't know whether I should love or hate everyone in the book, but I do know that Martin has a genius for creating riveting characters. Tyrion, my favorite character from Game, is shooting up my list of all-time favorite literary characters ever (seriously, where does he get his quips?). Arya is also incredible--imagine Scout Finch, but with a sword. The minor characters that lurk around the edges of the story have some real standouts among them as well: Varys, Bronn, Ser Jorah Mormont, Brienne, Shae, Samwell Tarly, Sandor Clegane, Asha, Renly, Littlefinger. Martin is so good at filling out his world with fascinating people.

He also, without a doubt, has the best villains. Cersei is just so utterly poisonous, Stannis so cold, Joffrey so damn annoying, Gregor Clegane so cruel. Theon Greyjoy, a small character in Game also steps up in this volume, and his storyline is one of my favorites. His descent into evil is not punctuated by melodramatic flashes of remorse, but Martin shows us those small flickers of doubt and mercy that elevate him to the status of a three-dimensional character.

Like its predecessor, Clash concludes on a frustrating note because Martin ends literally every storyline with a cliffhanger, although not before giving us the Battle of the Blackwater, the most spectacular sequence in the series so far. This isn't just good fantasy writing, this is excellent war fiction. And the juxtaposition of the furious, pyrotechnic battle on the river with Cersei and Sansa, waiting with a headsman to kill them should that battle go awry? Brilliant.

Clash is, without a doubt, a fantastic novel, exciting and addictive and shocking. It might not be quite as all-around fabulous as Game, but it also has a much harder role to play in the overall scheme of the series. It's not the very beginning, but a lot of the content is cleverly disguised set-up for what's to come.

And if a novel this good is Martin's version of set-up, I can only imagine what his payoff is going to be like.

Must. Not. Order. A Storm of Swords.

NEXT UP: A return to the classics, with Brideshead Revisited.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

The Turnaround by George Pelecanos

The Turnaround by George Pelecanos, 2008

The Turnaround is an odd book and one that took me a while to warm up to. Although not a huge popular success, George Pelecanos is an author that I've wanted to read for some time. A successful TV writer as well as a novelist, Pelecanos writes gritty stories of urban crime set in Washington D.C. The Turnaround is a lot more than just a crime novel; it's a strange, literary tale of consequences and redemption, of fathers and sons.

The novel begins in 1972 when diner owner's son Alex Pappas and two friends drive their car into a rundown black neighborhood as a prank. A confrontation with three black teenagers (the Monroe brothers and a scarred psychopath named Charles Baker) ensues, and one of the boys is killed and Alex is badly beaten. In 2007, blowback from that fatal day finally begins, as Raymond Monroe reaches out to Alex and Baker begins plotting the downfall of those who ruined his life.

For the first third of the novel, I wasn't really tracking with the rather loose plot and Pelecanos's reserved style wasn't making me too enthusiastic. My patience was definitely rewarded in the end, though. Pelecanos has no intention of spoon-feeding readers and he makes them work for payoff, since most of the novel's early pages are set-up for what's to come.

It's a good thing the payoff is worth it. Pelecanos writes with subtlety and grace of the effect of the shooting on the lives of his four main characters. His themes reveal themselves at a leisurely pace, well suited to Pelecanos's crisp, clear, almost relaxed, style. He's in no hurry to get to the thrills; this is a story of emotions and lasting impressions, not of gunfights and fisticuffs.

Pelecanos has an Elmore Leonard-ish grasp of dialogue and shares Leonard's ability to write compelling, dangerous villains purely from the way they speak. Charles Baker's section of the book is quite possibly the most effective. Baker himself is a magnetic, chilling character that stands in sharp contrast to the more conventional characters of Alex and Raymond:

Time was, he carried a gun regular and cared less than nothing about the consequences. Used to be, back when he was staying with a woman he knew, over there in the high forties, off Nannie Helen Burroughs in Northeast, he'd get up in the morning, drop a pistol into his pocket, head out the door, and go to work. Walk the streets until he came up on people who looked to be weak, older females and men he could punk, then take them off for what they had. He fancied himself a beautiful, strong animal, like one of those cheetahs walking out on the plain. Going to work natural, doing what hunters did.---(page 95)

I do think that Baker's subplot could have been woven more effectively into the main storyline, but it works well on the sidelines, too. His tangle with a dangerous gang of drug dealers provides the novel with a needed shot of violent suspense.

The main dish is the story of the Pappas and Monroe families through two generations, with special emphasis on the Pappas's coffee shop. The coffee shop details add a lot of color and realism to the novel; Pelecanos, whose family owned a diner when he was growing up, writes with authority on grill schedules, changing menus and the importance of choosing the right decor. It's a relatively small touch that hugely contributes to the novel's atmosphere.

At first, I didn't think that Alex and Raymond displayed that much depth, or even personality, but like everything about this novel, it's all about patience. Pelecanos's ear for dialogue is so good that it's almost impossible not to believe his characters. By the end, I was really appreciating his skill in drawing the people of his story, in a way both subtle and compelling.

The Turnaround is, as I said before, a rather strange novel, laid-back, detached, somehow calm. It takes time for the story to get going, only for it to end abruptly. It's a book with a message artfully entwined in the storytelling, but Pelecanos avoids giving the readers huge flashing signs saying "IMPORTANT MOMENT HERE." He shows his characters and their actions with honesty and fairness, and then steps back to let the reader decide.

My main conflict about the book is whether I liked it or whether I liked it liked it (yeah, I know that sounds high-school-ian). It's definitely a book to remember and consider. The rather hauntingly clear passages of forgiveness, redemption and acceptance are not going to fade away soon.

NEXT UP: More delicious George R. R. Martin with A Clash of Kings.