19 December 2011

Started early, took a long time

I wasn't totally discouraged by my attempts to make sense of Kate Atkinson's first novel. I still had good memories about Case Histories. Besides, I'd bought a paperback copy of the newest of Atkinson's books about the adventures of Jackson Brodie, Started Early, Took My Dog. Not only was it a paperback book, I bought it at the end of term sale at Carleton's book store.

As with Case Histories, the book starts out with a plethora of names and few other identifiers. I finally resorted to taking notes, like I did when I read Queen of the Night. Some of the people figured prominently in the stories. Some of the people just happened to be in the area. I was over two-thirds of the way into the book before I could stop checking my notes every couple paragraphs. Here are the notes I took at the back of the book. (I long for the days of the huge Russian novels I used to read that had the casts of characters listed at the front of the book.)

It was about two-thirds of the way into the book that Atkinson began to really tell her main story. That's probably why I didn't have to refer to my character notes as much. Atkinson has stories, lots of them: backstories, side stories, distracting stories, main stories. At the beginning there are few hints about which is which. And she writes little scenes from these stories and seemingly throws them into the book, often without warning. No chapters to speak of. Sometimes a date, sometimes not. Sometimes a horizontal line between scenes, sometimes not. And there are lots of people. Did I say that already?

I really don't want to work this much for a diverting mystery story (or two). I'm having second thoughts about going back and reading the two other Jackson Brodie books. In addition, the plots of the two main stories are, to my mind, overly complex. And the resolution was too quick and slick. It was almost as though Atkinson's word processor told her she had written 100,000 words and she felt she needed to end the book before she got to 105,000 words. [The endings of the television series Bones are like that. (It's one of the three or four TV series that gets watched at our house.) Big mystery, fantastical scientific investigation, a little detective work, and in the last 2 minutes the bad guy confesses or is said to have been arrested. Quick and slick.]

I liked wondering about the main mystery and one of the subsidiary ones. There was one good red herring. Some of the over-complexity was caused by a less than interesting back story. Jackson Brodie needs to get over himself before there's another story about him. Atkinson has to get over over-complicating her novels. Complexity and obscurity do not make for better story telling. (Although at times I think that's what critics imply.)

Have you read Started Early, Took My Dog? What did you think? Anyone besides Dan read other Kate Atkinson books? How did you react? Write and tell this little bit of the world about your response. Or you can just post a comment at the end of this blog entry.

05 December 2011


I have read half a dozen of Thomas Perry's books. I have really liked them. (Search for Perry at the Delicious index for this blog.)

I picked up a recent Perry book at the library. It's one of a series he's written featuring Jane Whitefield: Runner. Jane Whitefield is a kind of magician who helps make people disappear because really bad guys are threatening their lives. She pulls out wads of cash, piles of previously established identities, formidable martial arts skills, and years of experience to create new people out of old ones.

Here are the Heart of Gold and Green Lantern awards for improbabilities and super heroism. The story is overwhelmed by those characteristics.

The other thing to note is that Perry's skills in creating and maintaining tension and suspense are as great as his sense of humor (that appears in his other books). Given the nature of the story: professionals searching across the country for a scared, pregnant, 20-year-old, tension and suspense cannot be relieved until the end of the story. Okay, but I'm not obligated to read 440 pages of gripping fear and anxiety. I read about half way through the book and then skipped to the last three chapters just to see how Perry tied up the loose ends.

Have you read Runner or another of Perry's "Jane Whitefield" novels? What did you think of it (them)? How did you deal with the tension? Is my imagination just too active? Write and tell this little bit of the world what you think.

02 December 2011

Help. What am I missing?

Back at the end of September, I had the pleasure of reading Kate Atkinson's Case Histories. In October, I had the pleasure of seeing the three mystery novels about Jackson Brodie (the first of which was Case Histories) turned into BBC mysteries on the PBS series Masterpiece Mystery. I'm still looking forward to reading the other two Brodie mysteries. But not because of Atkinson's prize winning first book.

Because Case Histories was so good, I headed for the library with Atkinson's name on the top of my to-read list. I had several books to choose from and checked out Atkinson's first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum.

Back in '95, the book was named the Whitbread Book of the Year (now called the Costa Book of the Year). It's a respectable British prize. According to the prize's web site, "The Costa Book Awards is one of the UK's most prestigious and popular literary prizes and recognises some of the most enjoyable books of the year by writers based in the UK and Ireland."

According to the relevant Wikipedia page, the awards "are given both for high literary merit but also for works that are enjoyable reading and whose aim is to convey the enjoyment of reading to the widest possible audience. As such, they are a more populist literary prize than the Booker Prize."

Notice how I haven't said much about my reaction to the book yet?

I figure I need some instruction about this book.

I only got a bit past half way through it. And I only read that far because I recalled that at about the half-way point the elements of Case Histories began to come together and become a book and a story.

Behind the Scenes at the Museum didn't come together and gave no signs of coming together. It's a mish-mash of partial characterizations, incomplete anecdotes, and confusing descriptions of events.

And it took a long time for me to get half way through the book. I had the tendency to fall asleep after reading a few pages.

By half way through the book, I'd begun to distinguish between some of the characters, but not all of them. There was the narrator, who began telling the story at her conception. Some people in Mississippi might have appreciated the fetus' omniscience, but it was confusing, especially since after her birth, the narrator seemed not to know everything. There was the narrator's sister, Patricia, whose life would have made a more interesting story. The narrator's parents were intriguing, but not terribly interesting. And there were a bunch of other people, most of whom I could not distinguish from one another.

When I gave up on this book, I picked up Thomas Perry's Runner. By page 10, I was hooked on the story and caring about the characters. I really should have dropped the Atkinson book and picked up the Perry book long ago. I'll write something about Runner soon.

So, has anyone read this who can instruct me about why Behind the Scenes at the Museum was a prize-worthy novel? Or has anyone had an experience like my discouraging one? Write and tell me and the rest of this little bit of the world what you think.