Case Histories by Kate Atkinson (2004)

Book #1 of the Jackson Brodie Mysteries series

This book, by award-winning novelist Kate Atkinson, is one of the most unusual murder mystery stories I have ever read.  In it, Jackson Brodie, a former cop turned private investigator in Cambridge, England is tasked with solving three unsolved — and unconnected — cold cases: a thirty-four year old missing child case; the ten-year old unsolved murder of a teenager; and a twenty-five year old case (which only brushes Jackson Brodie’s life and which we the reader learn much more about than he does) involving a woman who murdered her husband.

From its expansive opening presentation of the crimes to its bizarre final chapters, the book seems to defy its genre entirely although it is most definitely a murder mystery novel. The most immediately notable difference from other mysteries is the fact that each of the crimes is described for the reader in its own stand-alone chapter at the beginning of the book. These “case histories” are not cold police files but rather touching and very human stories about the victims and the circumstances surrounding the crimes. A second notable deviation from the standard are the multiple narrators — both of large and small involvement in the main story — and a narrative style that at times feels almost stream-of-consciousness, even dream-like.

Wonderfully well-written and composed with a circular, atemporal style (slightly similar to the style that made her best selling novel Life After Life so compelling), the story lopes around and around itself and its characters in an almost languid way. This is at odds with the breakneck pace and methodical order of most other murder mysteries; it is almost as if Brodie is not so much solving these mysteries as he is simply excavating them from where they have been hiding, often in plain sight. In fact, Brodie himself is a passive character who — without any real evidence of work — has clues revealed to him, which he follows up on without any real sense of urgency. Yet somehow, the story moves along and the unsolved cases begin to have light shone upon them, and amazingly, all three cases are resolved almost as if by complete accident.

For lovers of the genre, I strongly suggest this novel. I found that I could not put it down once I began and finished in one, gloriously lazy Saturday afternoon. Such an utterly satisfying way to spend a winter day.

A Faint Cold Fear by Karin Slaughter (2004)

Grant County Thrillers Series, Book #3 (2004)

In this third installment of the Grant County Thrillers, Slaughter has given readers yet another really well-crafted murder mystery. A full introduction to the series was posted on this blog last week, that review can be found here http://wp.me/p6N6mT-bU .

This time around, our main characters coroner Sara Linton and police chief Jeffrey Tolliver, stumble upon a dead student on the local college campus. What appears at first to be a tragic suicide, quickly unravels into a murder investigation that will encompass two more students and a campus employee before the pieces of the puzzle come together.

Helping Sara and Jeffrey out is former police officer-cum-campus security guard Lena Adams. Complicating things is the fact that Lena was not asked to help nor is she authorized to do so. Instead, she finds that she cannot let go of her investigative training and soon is following up on leads without informing the police. Working with Lena is a college student named Ethan who comes to Lena with a series of leads that he will only share if he can be part of the reconnaissance.

In the hands of a more straightforward novelist, the security guard would gather some evidence, the coroner some, and the police some and together their shared information would solve the case. Not for Slaughter, however. The messy personal lives, poor choices and traumatizing events — past and present — affect all of the characters leading evidence to be missed and false accusations to be cast. Despite being well-qualified and intelligent, these experts make blunders and tell lies that move them further away from the truth rather than toward it.

The messy emotional lives of the characters do not detract from the story but make the story feel stronger and more competent. For a writer to present characters as robots — ones who look an data, interpret it, and come to conclusions — the book would feel wooden and unrealistic. Slaughter gives us cops who make hasty arrests based on grudges, doctors who make mistakes because of exhaustion, and civilians who hide truths to cover up their own secrets. And yet, they still get the bad guy. That makes for a better read and a “happier” ending.

Look at Me by Jennifer Egan (2001)

“Life can’t be sustained under the pressure of so many eyes. Even as we try to reveal the mystery of ourselves, to catch it unawares, expose its pulse and flinch and peristalsis, the truth has slipped away, burrowed further inside a dark coiled privacy that replenishes itself like blood. It cannot be seen, much as one might wish to show it. It dies the instant it is touched by light.”

Written by Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner, Jennifer Egan, the novel Look at Me is an intense, often thrill-ride-esque story about image, identity, reality, and truth…among many, many other things. It is a story that pokes holes in many of our deeply-held beliefs — that we are in complete control of the image we present to the world; that we can hide from others the things about ourselves that we most revile; and that we can find authenticity through superficial experiences and connections. Egan writes with a prose that manages to be businesslike and direct at times, and at others startlingly eloquent and beautifully grandiose. Her characters, who while not always likable (at times not likable at all) but who nonetheless deliver powerful messages to us all the same.

The main character of the story is Charlotte Swenson, an aging model on her way out of the business but who has managed to carve out a cardboard life for herself in New York City. She exists with only quasi-relationships, and her days are filled with an endless stream of hollow experiences, “being discovered rather than discovering anything.” She has locked herself behind a wall, living in fear of showing weakness to the world. Her world is one constructed almost entirely of lies, so many that even her memories have become untrustworthy. “I lied a lot. I guarded what truths I possessed because information was not a thing — it was colorless, odorless, shapeless, and therefore indestructible.There was no way to retrieve or void it, no way to halt its proliferation. Telling someone a secret was like storing plutonium inside a sandwich bag. The information would eventually outlive the friendship or love or trust in which you had placed it. And then you would have given it all away.”

This Charlotte is our primary narrator, taking us through the events before, during, and after a horrific car crash that changes her life beyond recognition. The accident forces her to convalesce in her Midwestern hometown of Rockford  (which she abhors) and to rely on neighbors and friends (who she desperately resents for witnessing her lowest point) for care.“Once they’ve seen you weak, dull, uneven, hesitant, cringing for love, they will never forget. Long after you’ve gained your vitality, after you have forgotten these exhibitions of weakness, they will look at you and still see them.

Upon returning to New York, she is unrecognizable to everyone who knew her. Her looks, once her only social currency, have vanished, and she has nothing left. She finds herself drawn into a series of strange semi-friendships as she struggles to simultaneously keep her distance from and work together with others. Eventually she agrees to a reality-TV/online expose work project that, while promising to deliver the “real” Charlotte to the world, serves to sever her further and further from reality.

Although Charlotte Swenson is the primary character, alternating third-person narrators also tell us their stories throughout the novel. All are struggling with their own versions of image distortion and identity crisis. Large sections of Look at Me take place back in that dreaded hometown of Rockford. Here we meet the other Charlotte, Charlotte Hauser, a sixteen year old girl who longs to be seen, to be loved, and to experience the world but who must cast about wildly and at times unsuccessfully to gain those experiences.

We also meet Hauser’s brother, mother, father, and her brilliant but mentally unstable Uncle Moose. Moose is a startling character, offering readers wild, rambling musings that touch on very deep truths about the world. Moose lives with a sense of fragility, as if he is a lone human in a world becoming increasingly mechanized. “He was a different man than those who thrived in the new world, the sociopath who made himself anew each afternoon, for whom lying was merely persuasion. More and more those men ruled the world, those quicksilver creatures, assembled from prototypes, who bore the same relationship to humans that machine-made clothing did to something hand-stitched.”

Oddly tying the novel’s character together is Michael West, an immigrant whose rage at America and all it stands for — greed, consumption, laziness, lack of intellect — has begun to lose its fiery edge as he too softens under the relentlessly anesthetizing effects of fast food, television, booze, and women. His commentaries serve to highlight the fact that the rest of the characters — relatively wealthy, comfortable, white people — while interested in reality and authenticity, have really no idea what that is.

This is truly an amazing book, one that is as entertaining at it is thought-provoking. This entire cast of characters provide us varying degrees of insight into the very human struggle we all face: to be ourselves, even when it is terrifying and difficult.

“We are what we see. Once a person had witnessed a vision that person’s life will be razed like a twig shack by its annihilating force, the truth of it a juggernaut, like a whale rearing up beneath a tiny raft and hurling its inhabitant to the far corners of the earth.”

Blindsighted by Karin Slaughter (2002)

The Grant County Thrillers, Book #1

Karin Slaughter, aptly named as she writes rather gruesome murder mystery novels, was unknow to me before I picked up her book Pretty Girls at the airport in November. (That book is reviewed on my blog here http://wp.me/p6N6mT-21) Pretty Girls was a very intense novel and its subject matter as dark as I have ever read, but her writing was really spectacular and her pacing break-neck, leading me to finish her book in a matter of hours.

When I was trolling around on the library website this past weekend, desperate for a good, can’t-put-it-down book, I was excited to find that she had written a murder mystery series, begun in the early 2000’s, that I had not read before and (even better) the first three books of the series were available for immediate checkout. That is how I found myself reading the first three books in the Grant County Thrillers in a matter of four days.

I love murder mystery novels and I love book series, largely because I am a very fast reader and series (especially ones that are several years old and have acquired a number of novels in them) give me a stack of books to plow through without having to wait for sequels, but also because reading novels with repeat characters appeals to my love of ongoing story lines.

The Grant County Thrillers take place in a fictional rural Georgia town of Heartsdale and focuses on the divorced couple Jeffrey Tolliver, the town’s police chief, and Sara Linton, the town’s pediatrician and coroner. Despite a less-than-civil divorce, the two occasionally work together to solve suspicious deaths that occur in Grant County. Satelliting around the pair are Sara’s parents and sister; the other officers on the Heartsdale police force; and several other members of their small town. Jeffrey is a thorough, focused police officer who is still unsure why he deliberately tanked his marriage to Sara, allowing himself to be caught in an affair with another local woman. Sara is a fiercely independent woman, an outstanding doctor, and a calm and largely unflappable coroner who refuses to take back a cheating husband.

In this first book of the series, Blindsighted, Sara and Jeffrey are forced to work on two gruesome sexual assault-homicide cases that take place in their small — usually crime-free — town. Complicating the cases are a suspicious lack of evidence or witnesses; a close relationship between the victims and one of Jeffrey’s detectives Lena Adams; and the similarity in the cases to a sexual assault that Sara personally experienced more than a decade previous.  Both Sara and Jeffrey must work quickly while trying to hold their own emotions at a distance, something that is harder to do than both had initially figured. Two more victims are discovered before the pair can find and stop the murderer.

Murder mysteries, in my opinion, need to move at just the right pace to be completely enjoyable: readers need the plot to go slow enough in certain places in order to provide adequate background information so we can decide which characters to trust and which ones might be hiding something. Readers also need clues to keep presenting themselves and witness to keep turning up so that we feel that the main characters are going to catch the killer before we lose interest. No one wants to stay up all night reading only to hear about coroner’s reports or footprints at the scene of the crime….we want forward momentum to be ever-present, we want to be told those footprints mean something. Also delicate to balance in books such as this are the moments of gore and graphic descriptions of violence which — if allowed to become too much the focus on the book — make it too weighty for the reader to want to continue. Those moments must be buoyed by lighter ones: ones where the characters have a heartfelt conversation or someone commits a generous act of human kindness.

Moving at just the right fast-but-not-too-fast pace, Slaughter does a wonderful job of keeping us breathless in anticipation, but not forgetting to let us in on the procedural details that will ultimately allow Sara and Jeffrey to solve the case. Also well done is the method the author uses to tell the story with three-pronged point of view technique. From Jeffrey we see the police procedural side of the investigation including witness interviews, crime lab reports, and law enforcement protocol (which at times hampers the investigation. From Sara, we see how critical the physical evidence she collects from the bodies during the autopsy is to finding the killers and assuring that he can be tied to the crime in court. Finally, we see bits and pieces of the story from the point of view of the victims (or soon-to-be-victims) and witnesses, allowing us to see some of the thousands of decisions each one made, some that can help (reporting suspicious activities) or hinder (lying about seeing victim the night of the crime) the case.

All in all this book was a great read, meeting all of my personal requirements for a page-turning thriller and I not only wanted to race to finish, but that I was in an equal hurry to start the second installment.

The Art Forger by B.A. Shapiro (2012)

In The Art Forger, B.A. Shapiro writes a mystery novel that focuses on the art world and the art-meets-science discipline of art forgery. The book follows a young, beautiful artist named Claire who has spent the three years prior to the story’s current action trying to distance herself from a scandal her former lover embroiled her in and one which ultimately had her largely cut off from the art world.

Now, Claire is a very poor, struggling artist whose work no galleries are willing to show and who has resorted to making art reproductions for a website specializes in high-end look-alikes of the world’s most famous paintings. As we first get to know Claire, we meet a very immature and self-pitying woman who has allowed her previous bad luck to stall both her creativity and her emotional development. These attributes are greatly enhanced by the author’s decision to write the novel in first person, present tense — a writing style I greatly associate with Young Adult fiction.

Claire’s lack of self-confidence and her naivety allow her to become part of a scheme to create a high-end replica of a Degas painting — one she believes to be a copy, but many others see as a forgery. Despite some early reluctance, Claire finds that she is thrilled and challenged by the effort to make a copy good enough to fool art experts. The more she studies the art of forgery the more she finds that her own work has come to life. Soon, she is creating a series of paintings that will comprise a real chance to establish herself as an up and coming artist. Furthermore, the more she works, the more and more confident and adult she becomes; her study of both Degas and his work begins to define her as a true scholar of his work and her study and perfection of the replicating techniques make her a scholar of art forgery as well.

Before Claire has a chance for her own one-woman art show, two men who were part of the “copying” scheme are arrested and her role in the deception is very likely to become widely known and possibly lead to her arrest as well. Her newfound confidence in her painting technique, her knowledge of Degas, and in herself means that, rather than allowing others to take advantage of her, she instead works to get herself and her compatriots out of trouble.

Although I cannot say that the author is an outstanding writer — her style is a bit amateurish and unimaginative — but her topic is clearly well-researched and she does present some very interesting views on both the creation of art and the real source of its value.

Transforming Infomania into Infomagical

Transforming Infomania into Infomagical: A new campaign by WNYC to “reestablish sanity in a technologically crazed world”

Image- note to self

Winding through a few podcasts that I have been meaning to catch up on this week (I love listening to podcasts while I take walks), I stumbled upon an interview with Manoush Zomorodi, the host and editor of “Note to Self,” a podcast I had never listened to. In her interview, Zomorodi introduced the audience to the WNYC social science study the staff of “Note to Self,” along with several academic partners, had launched in January  2016.

(The full link to the site and the study can be found here: http://project.wnyc.org/infomagical/)

The experiment, which bills itself as a “digital literacy campaign on steroids,” was created as an attempt to demonstrate to tech-obsessed individuals that they can stem the tide of information streaming towards them from millions of websites, apps, social media platforms, TV shows and (yes) even podcasts. Developed in response to the panicky, distracted sensation that so many Americans feel at the end of a day spent “connected” through their various tech devices, the experiment tasks listeners to practice single-mindedness, quiet reflection, and task-orientated use of technology.

Note to Self” asked listeners to sign up and pick a goal, and then they were issued five daily challenges — “each task designed to cut through the information overload and help you think more clearly.” The five challenges include things like spending a day only single-tasking, web-surfing only with intention, and spending a day connecting in-person with people around them.

The two podcasts that bookend the week-long study are very well-crafted, well-researched, and really fun to listen to, with various experts weighing in on the effects of digital overload and making the case for working to do less with our brains. I will not attempt to summarize; rather if you are interested in the specifics of project, I recommend that you spend one hour listening to them yourself. (You can even break the golden rule and multitask, like I did, and take a long walk while you listen.)

The first episode can be found at this link: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/note-to-self/id561470997?mt=2&i=361289565  and the last episode at this link:https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/note-to-self/id561470997?mt=2&i=362580738

However, I will say this about the brilliant experiment: I find it shocking and disturbing how much of themselves so many of the people around me have ceded to their online lives. I certainly feel less connected to these frantic souls who can never seem to keep up with the demands their phone makes on them and I can only imagine how they feel themselves. Calling attention to the downsides of all this connectedness is important and laudable.

Caveat: I have to admit that I have a very, very limited online presence. Other than this blog and my email account I have no other online “selves.” I am on no social media sites and I only follow a handful of blogs (many on WordPress who also follow me, so thanks!). This is all a conscious decision, not a “I can’t figure that website out” sort of decision. For the most part, I do not want to be more connected, more current, or more up-to-date. In a life that is already busy with the physical demands of work, home, children, spouse, and self, I am loathe to add any more mental demands to my life, especially the false ones crafted by social media or the entertainment industry.

What I really want more of in my life is to do less; to sit and reflect; to contemplate and discuss deep things with my husband; or to hike through the woods with my children. Of course, as this blog will attest, I also want to spend a large amount of my free time reading books. I have made a decision that empty demands on my time — web-surfing, watching too much TV, scrolling through social media sites — come at too high a cost: namely, the elimination of time and energy for the things I really love. As a result, I may seem extremely unhip (my tech-savvy sister who lives in San Francisco — upon learning I still check out DVDs from the library — called me, lovingly, “a dinosaur”) and I may miss out on a few important events in the lives of my friends who are on FB, but I have so much more control of my head space than I would otherwise. Quite honestly, those consequences are not game changing.

All that aside, I find the podcast “Note to Self” to be a real gem and the project they have created to be not only entertaining but important. Every one of us can benefit from focusing more, doing less, and striving towards that things us happy. Being alone, knowing ourselves, and nourishing our minds with joyful activities whenever possible: I strongly feel that those are noble goals we all should reach toward, and I resoundingly congratulate anyone who uses their platform to champion those values.

The Magicians by Lev Grossman (2009)

Lev Grossman’s book The Magicians is the first fantasy novel I have read in many years. With the exception of a few young adult fantasy series — namely Harry Potter, which I have been obsessed with for fifteen years — I have learned that fantasy is not a genre that I particularly enjoy. When talking with my son (a devoted fantasy fan, as most teenage boys seem to be) I was forced to come up with a reason for why I shy away from fantasy novels. After some reflection I determined that fantasy novels are often too much about place and the novel’s character development, plot pacing, and coherency all suffer for it.

However, when I read that Grossman’s series was considered “Harry Potter for adults” I knew I had to set aside my biases and give it a try. I really, really wanted to like this book. I wanted to to discover a series of books that I could dive into and anxiously await the next installment. Sadly that did not happen with The Magicians.

While I did not love the book, I did like the book. Grossman is a wonderful writer who really does have a wonderful idea — what would a group of disaffected, millennial teenagers who learn that they are capable of magic do? how would they be handle their power? what would they make of their newly enchanted lives?

The Magicians centers around a group of students who are selected to attend a prestigious college for the study of magic. The characters, who are all seventeen at the start of the novel’s action, are all living in a post-Harry Potter world (and a post Chronicles of Narnia, and post-Lord of the Rings). Their understanding of magic is profoundly affected by their familiarity with these books. Indeed, Grossman does not shy away from mentioning these books at all, rather he embraces that they now have established a canon of fantasy novels for young adults and weaves elements of all of those stories into his book (he even comes right out and references Quidditch, Middle-Earth, Hermione Granger, and the Narnia fauns, among others.) Somehow familiarity with these stories seem to have hardened the main characters slightly against the wonder of their new circumstances. Indeed, the story itself never seems to move out from under its influences and always feels like it exists in their shadow.

Grossman does create a really enjoyable parallel world from the students to live in and crafts a very beautiful version of magic for them. Rather than being something the the teens simply start doing, magic in this novel is a hard-earned, much-studied discipline that only the very elite are capable of. “Magic was like a language…treated as an orderly system but in reality it was complex, chaotic, and organic. There were as many special cases, one time variations as there were rules; filled with exceptions, asterisks, and footnotes.”  Much of the first half of the book focuses on their very challenging education, their learning of the magical languages of the world.

It is after graduation that the students seem to develop a malaise that is not unlike their non-magical peers: too much drinking, entering into self-destructive relationships, and devoting too much of their time searching for ways to be entertained. Together too much they press the boundaries of their friendship, “Fighting was like using magic. You said the words and they altered the universe. Merely by speaking you could create damage and pain, cause tears to fall, drive people away, make yourself feel better but make your life worse.” It is here that the book really started to lose me. I felt consistently irritated that despite being able to do magic and being very, very rich as a result of that, the characters can find nothing worthwhile to do with themselves. For a long while, the story seems to  be more about the post-college, adolescent struggles of this group rather than a fantasy story about wizards. In my opinion, if you cannot find a way to make your life entertaining and fulfilling when you are a extremely wealthy wizard, you really cannot be trying very hard.

Looking for a bit of fun and a way out of the depression they all seem to be sinking under, the group undertakes a risky time and dimension traveling adventure that turns out to be all too real. The story moves in fits and starts at this point in the novel: at times very exciting and other times a bit marred down in the he-said, she-said theatrics that dominated their time in college. A long journey is begun and a battle for their lives ensues. In the end only some of the characters survive and the rest are left to journey back home or remain on their own in this parallel world.

While his story-line in the final chapters does start to pick up pace and really embrace its fantasy novel roots — magical beasts, epic battles, daring quests — the novel’s ending feels as if it was changed several times by the author. Just when you think the first novel is ending, Grossman dashes off a few half-hearted lines that leap months into the future and introduce bizarrely complicated plot twists that really might have been better for the start of the second book.

While the book is readable and even entertaining it is not a modern classic, at least not standing on its own. It is possible that the series, when complete, will really be something amazing (which does happen with long series’ from time to time: the first book bobbles a bit but the rest of the books buoy it back up).