Written by Hannah
Need to pick up something for the voracious reader in your life? Hannah reviews her favorites releases of 2004.
Case Histories by Kate Atkinson
Set in England, this novel revolves around three “mysteries” – the disappearance of a small girl, the murder of a teenage girl while working in her father’s law office, and a young woman who murders her husband – all linked together by one man, a private investigator named Jackson Brodie. Brodie is hired to work on all these cases by various people. In the case of the disappearance of the little girl, he’s hired by two of her surviving sisters, who find something of hers in their father’s study after he dies. In the case of the teenage girl, he’s hired by her father, still distraught by his daughter’s death. And in the third, he’s hired by the young woman’s sister, who wants to find the daughter her sister had to leave behind when she was convicted. Through Brodie, these stories all connect but the connections are never forced and Brodie’s story turns out to be as interesting as the others.
Atkinson does an amazing job with all her characters – even the minor ones are fleshed out enough to sparkle – and though I found her moralizing about how young children dress tiresome, that’s the only sour note in an otherwise brilliant novel. Though I was only surprised by one of the plot “twists,” Atkinson’s ability to build a compelling narrative kept me reading eagerly to the end and I was deeply satisfied (and in the one case, quite surprised) by the endings/revelations of “what really happened.”
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke
There has been an enormous amount of hype about this book which is a shame because it’s being compared to other books when it should simply be judged on its own merits. Additionally, I suspect people picking up this novel expecting a Harry Potter type read will be disappointed. Although the books do have the following in common: they are both long and both contain magic. Well, it doesn’t make them very much alike at all and I think much of the media buzz has led to a strange mix of too much praise or reviews by people who seem to want the book to fail simply because it’s garnered so much press.
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is a long book (the edition I read ran to about 780 pages) and is very much like a 19th century novel, or rather, a 21st century take on the 19th century novel. The plot, as you can guess, covers quite a bit of time and Clarke handles the pacing very well. I was a little worried the book would drag – it’s the rare book that pushes 500 pages and doesn’t – but aside from one chapter, I felt that she kept everything moving right along.
The richly drawn characters are not going to be palatable to those who want their good guys totally good and their bad guys bad (there is one “bad” guy but Clark writes him as bad from our perspective – that is, he’s a creature of “other” and though she never comes out and says this, she makes it quite clear that those who aren’t human can’t really be judged by human standards).
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is very much a novel where there is a lot more talking than there is action – which didn’t bother me, but again, I think the press comparisons have made people expect otherwise. Some have accused the book of being draggy or not emotionally engaging but I didn’t find that the case at all – I read straight through to the end very eagerly, anxious to know what would happen, and I loved (LOVED!) how she wove magic into the world of early 19th century England. The mixing of the fantastical with real historical elements (not to mention all her footnotes referencing people and books that never were!) was brilliant.
Life Mask by Emma Donoghue
A very long (600+ pages) novel set in late 18th century England. Covering roughly ten years towards the end of the century and – of course – encompassing the period of the French Revolution, Donoghue’s story is about the Earl of Derby, an actress named Eliza Farren, and an aristocratic widow (and sculptor), Anne Damer. I don’t want to give too much of the plot away, because I really think you should read this book, but I will say Donoghue writes about real people and the entire novel is spun off a passage from in Hester Thrale Piozzi’s Thraliana.
Donoghue, as evidenced in Slammerkin, has an almost unparalled ability to convey place and when I was reading this I felt like I was in 18th century England. She paints a thorough portrait of daily life in the upper classes (and for actresses) of the time without ever once overwhelming the reader. Though this book doesn’t match the emotional intensity/impact of Sarah Water’s Affinity, it does have great detail and is an engrossing read.
Banishing Verona by Margot Livesey
Livesey’s story, about a painter with Asperger’s syndrome (a mild form of autism) named Zeke and a very pregnant radio announcer named Verona, is a surprisingly moving and atypical love story. For starters, Zeke and Verona – after a brief and quirky (but not too quirky!) fling – spend much of the book apart, and spend much of their time dealing with other problems. Zeke has to deal with his parents and their feelings about him, as well as his for them. Verona has to deal with her brother Henry, a charming and completely amoral cad who gets her mixed up in a business deal gone bad. Livesey’s characters are all fascinating – even the minor ones are fleshed out and compelling. The writing is gorgeous and there’s a lot of very thought provoking work about family, love, fear, betrayal, and forgiveness. A wonderful read.
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
It’s not a secret that I’m a David Mitchell fan, and the second this book came out in the UK I bought it. I consider it money very well spent, despite the lousy exchange rate, because Cloud Atlas is brilliant.
The book is structured as follows: In the first half, we are told the first half of five stories. The first story is set in the late 19th century and is about an American – Adam Ewing – journeying home to California across the Pacific. It’s written in dialect and I won’t lie – I found it very hard going. The dialect didn’t seem very 19th century American to me, and the narrator is, well, to say more would be giving too much away but we’ll just say I was thinking “Oh god, I paid how much for this??? Aiii!” But I kept going, hoping, and I was stunned when his story stopped – literally in mid-sentence – and then another story began.
The second story, told through a series of one-sided letters to someone called Sixsmith, is set in Europe in the 1930s and concerns a young man who is possibly brilliant and certainly amoral and his sojourn with a famed composer and his family. Again, for fear of plot spoilers, I won’t say how any of the sections link together – I’ll just say they do and although most of the time the ways in which they link are obvious the links works and don’t ever feel strained or stupid. This young man ends up as all young men like him do – in a tangle of his own making – and when his story stops we’re dropped directly into the third story. It’s set in California, in the 1970s, and revolves around a young journalist – Luisa Rey – and her efforts to obtain more information about a new nuclear facility. Luisa’s story then folds into “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish,” which is set in modern-day England and concerns an older man in the publishing industry. This is probably the weakest section of the book – on purpose, I suspect, as there’s some tie-in points about mass entertainment being made – but still I found it a little bumbly-fumbly (though I did enjoy Timothy’s insights into the publishing world very much).
After the first half of Timothy’s story we’re taken into the future and told the first half of “An Orison of Sonmi-451,” which I don’t want to talk about too much because again, spoilers, but I’ll say Mitchell’s imagination is unparalleled and this section left me reeling.
Then we come to the middle of the book and the section/story titled “Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After.” Yes, that’s really the title. It’s set in the even more distant future and is told entirely in dialect. I know – dialect again? – but don’t let it scare you off! The dialect Mitchell’s created flows very smoothly and the story – oh, the story is interesting and very well done but what’s even better is what Mitchell has to say and how he says it. Again, for fear of spoiling it – you really should read this book! – I don’t want to say too much but here is where everything Mitchell has been building comes together and my god, his imagination and skill blow my mind.
Mitchell wraps everything up by telling us the end of all the stories he’s begun–taking us all the way back to Adam (!) — and by the time I read the last line I had that lovely wobbly feeling you get when you’ve read something so good that you can’t quite believe it. Do yourself a favor and read this book.
The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
I had to wait forever to get this from the library but it was worth it because once I started reading I only stopped once – on page 157 – and that was so I could go out and buy my very own copy. It’s a story about- as you can probably guess from the title – time travel and it’s also a love story, tracing the relationship between the two main characters, Henry and Clare. I loved Niffenegger’s take on time travel and Henry and Clare are phenomenal, the kind of characters that are truly unforgettable, and their love story is well-crafted and beautiful. When I was done I felt like I did after I read my first Helen Dunmore novel – like I’d been graced with something amazing.
Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett
A memoir about Patchett’s friendship with Lucy Grealy, who apparently had some success as a writer a few years ago (I’d never heard of her till I read this) and died in late 2002. Patchett opens the book by talking about when she first met Lucy – when they were undergraduates at Sarah Lawrence, and how Lucy, who suffered from severe facial damage as result of losing part of her jaw to cancer treatment as a child, was someone everyone on campus knew and how she wanted to approach her, but the one time she did came away without having really talked to Lucy at all. They meet for real when they both end up in the Iowa Writer’s Workshop in the early 80s and this time, they become roommates and very good friends. The friendships last until Lucy’s death, and there’s a lovely line, early in the book, about how they both revised the beginning of their friendship back to their undergraduate days when they talked about it in order to have the pleasure of knowing each other longer.
It would be very easy, I think, to make this a story that was either all about Lucy’s strength and determination (which she had in spades) or her crippling emotional problems (which, again, she had in spades) but Patchett doesn’t do that. Instead she paints a portrait of Lucy as someone who was both incredibly strong and incredibly self-destructive, someone who had amazing talent and who made a name for herself. I’ve seen complaints that Patchett comes across as some sort of martyr but I don’t think that’s the case at all. She makes it clear, in beautifully dazzling prose, that to see Lucy, to know Lucy, was to love her and that she could no more stop herself from doing everything she could to help Lucy than she could love her. They were total opposites in many ways but despite that – or perhaps because of it – they had a bond that endured. Patchett’s recounting of Lucy’s work methods (glamorous, last minute) and her own (working every day, becoming a overnight success over a period of years) and her description of herself as an ant to Lucy’s grasshopper are very well done and a great way for her to show how different they were and how those differences complimented each other – she grounded Lucy (as much as anyone could) and Lucy helped her dream.
The final third of the book, which deals with Lucy’s life after she very successfully published a memoir and then spiraled into depression and drug addiction is beautifully harrowing reading. You can feel Patchett’s desperation to help Lucy, to make everything okay with her, and her misery and resignation when she realizes that she won’t be able to. And when Lucy dies – that section of the book is heartbreaking. The last two pages, in particular, are beautifully done and overall this is a wonderful portrait of a friendship and a loving tribute to Lucy Grealy.
Little Children by Tom Perrotta
I checked this out of the library on a whim – it’s a tale of suburban angst, of parents in their 30s grappling with who they’ve become in the process of settling down and having children – and as that’s not something I can really relate to, I wasn’t sure I’d enjoy this book. I was so freaking wrong. This is an absolutely fantastic novel, though I do want to say that it’s not for those who are looking for a feel good read or validation that all parents are good parents, or heck, even that every person has some good inside him/her.
The story centers around Sarah, a former graduate student and ardent feminist who, through a series of pretty typical circumstances (graduated with a useless liberal arts degree, worked at Starbucks, went back to school, gave up, went back to Starbucks) has ended up married and the parent of a small child. As the book opens we find her sitting miserably on a playground with all the other stay-at-home moms, hating them, hating her life, hating herself. Then the “Prom King” shows up. The Prom King, Todd, is a stay-at-home dad – that is, he’s supposedly studying for and getting ready to pass the bar, but after multiple attempts, he’s no longer really interested in being a lawyer (as the book unfolds, it’s clear he was never interested in the law at all) who is married to an up-and-coming documentary film maker. Sarah and Todd drift into a passionate affair and I know this sounds horribly cheesy but it’s not. Perrotta is not afraid to show that these people – these parents – are as immature and irrational as their own kids, and they make the choices they do because they are bored and unhappy but afraid to really do anything to change their lives. Throw in a recently released from prison child molester who has returned to the neighborhood as well as a collection of other equally unhappy parents and you have a riveting – if bleak (though leavened with touches of fairly dark humor) – story.
While everything that happens is totally predictable, Perrotta is a graceful writer who manages to make his characters fascinating even if they are shallow, stupid, or, in the case of the child molester, a truly horrible human being. Lots of great lines – the last one, in particular, has a lovely biting sting – brisk pacing, and very well drawn characters make this an engrossing read.
Ideas of Heaven by Joan Silber
Yes, this is one of those hotly contested National Book Award nominees. It’s a shame that’s pretty much the most press this wonderful collection of loosely related short stories got, because it’s a really solid read. The stories are touted as being linked, but the connection between one story and another ranges from solid to incredibly nebulous. Having said that, it in no way detracts from the collection as a whole, which is wonderfully well-written and one that I loved reading. I found the first and the last story “My Shape” and “The Same Ground” to be the weakest of the collection, concerning a middle aged woman and man and their journey towards each other but they were both wonderfully written. The real gem of the collection, and the story that gives the book its title is the amazing “Ideas of Heaven” which is one of the best short stories I’ve ever read. It’s about a woman who journeys with her family to become a missionary in China right before the Boxer Rebellion. It’s gorgeously written, heartbreaking, and a really well done look at faith in a way that I found both insightful and moving.
Good Grief by Lolly Winston
Aside from a too-neat ending, this is a great read. When the book opens Sophie Stanton is a recent widow, having lost her husband, Ethan, to cancer. Sophie is in mourning and Winston does a fabulous job of conveying her grief in a way that’s both heart-rending and funny – her Sophie is relatable, smart, and charming, and you can’t help but feel for her. As the book unfolds we watch her start to slowly come to terms with her loss. She goes to counseling, looses her job (the work sections are funny and sad – not an easy trick but Winston shines with this), sells the house she and Ethan shares (again, heart-breaking and funny) and moves to Oregon, living with an old friend from college for a while and gradually, via a new job, an attempt to be a Big Sister (her ‘little sister,’ a sulky, fucked up teenager named Crystal is a wonderfully drawn character), and a burgeoning romance with an actor (the only false note in the book as the guy is not very fleshed out) starts to really live again. The ending was, as noted, problematic for me, but that’s just because I like things a bit messy – I hate it when every single thread is tied up – but otherwise this is a remarkable book.