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Archive for the ‘Kate Atkinson’ Category

It is indeed December but, operating as usual on the concept of better late than never, I wanted to share thoughts on some of the books I read in October.  October was dominated by my trip to Europe and my two weeks there hiking in the mountains, wandering through galleries, and eating absolutely delicious food left little time for reading, but I made up for it once I was home.  It was a great reading month and there are a few contenders here for my year-end top ten list:

The Star of Kazan by Eva Ibbotson (2004) – a comforting reread of one of Ibbotson’s best children’s books.

The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell (2022) – there is always excitement around a new release from O’Farrell and this is solid storytelling, but not to the excellent level O’Farrell is capable of.  It is the story of Lucrezia de’ Medici, who became the duchess of Ferrara and died at sixteen – of illness, or was it poison at the hands of her husband?  Lucrezia is a distant personality but the only fully-formed character in the book, which proved challenging for me to engage with the story.  The ending was very frustrating and felt cheap, making for an unsatisfying experience all round.

The Winners by Fredrik Backman, translated by Neil Smith (2022) – Powerfully concluding the trilogy which began with Beartown (one of my favourite a few years ago), I fell deep into this book, even dreaming about it, in part because the characters are so well known to me now but mostly because this hockey-mad northern community has always felt so real.  Backman told us in the first book the fates of several characters and it was immensely satisfying, if heartbreaking, to follow them on that journey.

Horizon by Helen MacInnes (1945) – MacInnes’ thriller focuses on a British PoW who, after escaping from his camp, finds himself living in the Dolomites and helping Tyrolean resistance fighters who, despite a common language, feel only hatred for the Germans.  It’s a flimsy plot with shallow characters and usually I wouldn’t have bothered finishing it but MacInnes does a good job of evoking the stunning setting and the fierce sense of a regional identify separate from either Austria or Italy.  Reading it while in the South Tyrol, only a short distance from the plateau where much of the story is set, also added to my enjoyment.

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler (1982) – a typically excellent Tyler novel about a Baltimore family, told from the perspectives of various members and tracking them from the children’s youths to middle age.  And, as usual, bleak.  I feel like Tyler has relented a little as she’s aged but I’m not sure that she believed happy families existed when she was younger.

Shrines of Gaiety by Kate Atkinson (2022) – a new book from Atkinson is always a cause for rejoicing but this exceeded even my expectations.  Set in the 1920s, Atkinson focuses on missing girls, London nightclubs, and the people caught up on both sides of the law.  She turns phrases so easily and artfully that you can’t help but be delighted and knows how to manage a large cast amidst tangled plot threads better than any other modern writer I can think of.  I loved every word of this.

The Trials of Topsy by A.P. Herbert (1928) – a comic joy.  Full review here.

A Company of Swans by Eva Ibbotson (1985) – what better to turn to while jetting home than an old familiar favourite?  For someone who hates airplanes, this was the perfect distraction and comfort.  Here’s a proper review from ten years ago.

The Golden Enclaves by Naomi Novik (2022) – I was so excited to see how Novik would conclude her “Scholomance” trilogy after loving the first two books, but had to force myself through this.  With graduation now behind her, our heroine El finds herself travelling the globe and Novik loses the world and constraints she built up so well in earlier books set within the school.  Without that tight focus, the story sprawls in every sense of the word, with new characters introduced every few pages as El journeys from one magical community to another.  There are altogether too many dramatic “twists” and, in a series that has always felt mislabelled as adult rather than YA, the entire approach felt geared towards juvenile readers with its neat and bloodless tidying up.  Disappointing.

The Belle of Belgrave Square by Mimi Matthews (2022)Matthews has been a relatively recent discovery for me (thanks to other book bloggers) and I’m loving her gentle historical romances.  This is the second in her “Belles of London” series, which started enjoyably earlier this year with The Siren of Sussex.  I liked that book but I loved this one about a marriage of convenience.  Our heroine Julia, the quiet daughter of demanding invalid parents, and hero Captain Blunt, a veteran of the Crimea who is scandalously raising his bastard children, were introduced in the earlier book and immediately intrigued me but this still managed to exceed my expectations.  The secrets are obvious from the start, so there’s no real Gothic tension (just as I like it), and the story is full of the tenderness Matthews does so well.  If you haven’t tried Matthews yet, her North and South-inspired novella, A Holiday by Gaslight, is perfect seasonal reading.

The Hero of This Book by Elizabeth McCracken (2022) – Nancy Pearl put me on to McCracken and I’ve read three of her books this year, impressed each time with her style and readability.  This is autofiction, which is strange to me at the best of times, but if anyone can convert me it is McCracken with her excellent and entertaining writing.  I especially loved this description of her grandmother:

My grandmother was a nonpracticing lawyer, not the first woman to graduate from Benjamin Harrison Law School in Indianapolis but the only one in the class of 1927.  She was president of her sisterhood, traveled as a public speaker, needlepointed, knit, took photographs and developed them, was a small-business consultant, silk-screened tablecloths, once built a table, and still had time to worry too much.  Somewhere there’s a picture of me in a sweater set of such burlappy awfulness, steel wool to the eye as well as the skin, so cunningly unflattering to every proportion of the short, plump 1980s teenager I was, you would have thought it had been designed as a specific punishment, not knit out of love, though she did love me, which is why the photo exists: She wanted me to pose engulfed in proof.

Ducks by Kate Beaton (2022) – a superb graphic memoir about Beaton’s time working in the oilsands of Northern Alberta.  She does a wonderful job of evoking the strangeness of the camps – where everyone is from somewhere else and no one particularly wants to be there – and how it alters people, rarely for the better.  It is a hard place to be a woman and this may be the best account of sexual assault I’ve read.

The Case Against the Sexual Revolution by Louise Perry (2022) – such an interesting book to read following Ducks – an unintentional pairing but a very appropriate one.  Perry, who has spent time working in rape crisis centers in the UK, lays out the ways in which women have been disadvantaged by the sexual revolution.  Well-researched, well-argued, and full of common sense, she’s not delivering a particularly new message but one that we clearly need to be reminded of over and over again.  There is an excellent review of it in the Guardian if you want further enticement.

Miss Bishop by Bess Streeter Aldrich (1933) – I don’t think Aldrich can be called neglected but would under-appreciated be the right word?  Her books aren’t very hard to find, A Lantern in Her Hand remains a standard in school libraries, and Miss Bishop was adapted fairly loyally into the film “Cheers for Miss Bishop”, and yet I don’t think she’s as popular as her excellent stories of Midwestern pioneers warrant.  Here, she gives readers a wonderful account of the life of Ella Bishop, from her entry into a brand new midwestern college at the age of sixteen until her retirement from that same school fifty years later.  Aldrich handles all the joy and sadness beautifully, as Ella’s life evolves very differently from what she had envisioned.  As always with Aldrich, the sense of community is excellent.

The Forbidden Valley by Essie Summers (1973) – what a very dramatic title for a quintessential Summers romance.  Our heroine Charlotte is shocked to hear her cousin Phyl has disappeared, leaving her two children without explanation as well as her new husband, who, unbeknownst to her, was injured the day she left and is lying unconscious in hospital.  Charlotte takes up the post of housekeeper to keep an eye on the children and figure out what is actually going on, though she hadn’t accounted for the immediate rapport with Edmund, Phyl’s brother-in-law who rushed home after his brother’s accident and is ill disposed towards the feckless Phyl, whom he has never met.   There are far, far too many secrets – when in doubt of how to create conflict, always add another secret! – but it was still a fun story to pass an afternoon with.

I’ve Got the One-More-Washload Blues by Lynn Johnston (1981) – I came back from vacation to discover the paper has entirely changed the comics section but one happy result is that they have brought back “For Better or For Worse”, which ran for almost thirty years from 1979 to 2008 and chronicled the lives of Elly, Anthony and their children.  This collection took me back to the comic’s early years when the children were young and their parents were losing their minds.

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I have been very negligent in my reviews this year and am months behind.  Whoops.  I have been trying lately to get reviews up in a more timely fashion and I have been succeeding to some extent but there are still all the titles from April and March and, yes, even February that I want to mention, however briefly!  Time for some mini-reviews, starting with Started Early, Took My Dog by Kate Atkinson, Female Chauvinist Pigs by Ariel Levy, and Born Round by Frank Bruni.

There are certain pearls of wisdom spouted by Jackson Brodie that I take to heart.  For example, his concern in an earlier book (One Good Turn, I think?) that women wear shoes that they can run in or easily rid themselves of, should a crisis arise.  A very sensible and practical sentiment, I thought.  In Kate Atkinson’s most recent Brodie novel, Started Early, Took My Dog, there is the usual fill of this observant, if highly politically incorrect, social commentary, echoed by most of the characters:

‘You can’t tell a good girl from a prostitute these days,’ Harry Reynolds said.  ‘They all dress like they’re on the game, act like it too.’

‘I know,’ Tracy said, surprised to find herself agreeing with someone like Harry Reynolds.  But it was true, you looked at young girls, crippled in heels, dressed like hookers, stumbling around pissed out of their brains on a Saturday night in Leeds town centre and you thought, did we throw ourselves under horses for this, gag on forced feeding tubes, suffer ridicule, humiliation and punishment, just so that women could behave worse than men?

Atkinson just gets better and better with each Brodie book.  They’re categorized as mysteries but they are my kind of mysteries, where characters are at the forefront, always layered and intriguing, attention to them never sacrificed in favour of the mystery.  This is, as always, a story about forgotten women and lost children, making me more paranoid than depressed though Atkinson paints a pretty bleak picture of the world and constantly highlights woman’s defenselessness.  Not a cheerful book but an excellent one.

On a vaguely related note (well, certainly related to the passage I quoted from Started Early, Took My Dog), there is Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture by Ariel Levy.  Basically, I agreed with everything in this book.  There were no new ideas presented and nothing that particularly stood out for me; I simply found it to be an excellent overview of the topic, full of persuasive examples and clear, thoughtful writing.  Rather than weakly summarize Levy’s points, here are a few of my favourite passages: 

This new raunch culture didn’t mark the death of feminism, they told me: it was evidence that the feminist project had already been achieved.  We’d earned the right to look at Playboy; we were empowered enough to get Brazilian bikini waxes.  Women had come so far; I learned, we no longer needed to worry about objectification or misogyny.  Instead, it was time for us to join the frat party of pulp culture, where men had been enjoying themselves all along.  If Male Chauvinist Pigs were men who regarded women as pieces of meat, we would outdo them and be Female Chauvinist Pigs: women who make sex objects of other women and of ourselves.

That women are now doing this to ourselves isn’t some kind of triumph, it’s depressing.  Sexuality is inherent, it is a fundamental part of being human, and it is a lot more complicated than we seem to be willing to admit.  Different things are attractive to different people and sexual tastes run wide and wild.  Yet somehow, we have accepted as fact the myth that sexiness needs to be something divorced from the everyday experience of being ourselves.  

Women’s liberation and empowerment are terms feminists started using to talk about casting off the limitations imposed upon women and demanding equality.  We have perverted these words.  The freedom to be sexually provocative or promiscuous is not enough freedom; it is not the only ‘woman’s issue’ worth paying attention to.  And we are not even free in the sexual arenas.  We have simply adopted a new norm, a new role to play: lusty, busty exhibitionist.  There are other choices.  If we are really going to be sexually liberated, we need to make room for a range of options as wide as the variety of human desire.  We need to allow ourselves the freedom to figure out what we internally want from sex instead of mimicking whatever popular culture holds up to us as sexy.  That would be sexual liberation.  

All of the books dealing with body image and eating disorders that I’ve previously read have centered around women and girls, so Born Round by Frank Bruni was an intriguing contrast.  Bruni is the former chief restaurant critic for The New York Times and struggled with his relationship to food for many years prior to accepting that position, employing dangerous methods to attempt to control his weight. Reading about his childhood and early adult years was particularly disturbing, when he was so obsessed over an extra ten or fifteen pounds that he turned to bulimia, laxatives and Mexican speed.  For me, the most intriguing and entertaining parts of this book dealt not with Bruni’s mental and physical struggles with his body but with his career endeavours.  His time as a journalist on the George W. Bush’s presidential campaign is mentioned all too briefly and the best part about the chapters covering his beginnings as a food critic are not hearing about his eating or workout regime (‘oh dear god, I really do not care’ was my reaction by this point) but about his actual work process.  About disguising himself to visit restaurants so that wait staff and chefs don’t recognize him, about booking reservations under pseudonyms and then showing up having forgotten what name he used.  The rest of the book was a little too much like therapy for me.  It was no doubt a freeing experience to get this all down on paper, in public, but if I had known just how self-loathing it was going to be beforehand, I probably would have never picked it up.

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