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Tuesday, May 3, 2011

What I'm Reading: Started Early, Took My Dog

Started Early, Took My Dog: A NovelKate Atkinson is one of my personal sure bet authors.  No matter what she writes, I know I will enjoy it.  What I love about her is that she writes complex, layered stories, but always manages to bring every last thread back together in a smart, interesting, and satisfactory way.  I can sit back and relax when I read an Atkinson book because I trust that she will lead me in the right direction.

Started Early, Took My Dog (herein SETMD) is the latest Atkinson book featuring Jackson Brodie.  Like the first 4, SETMD can be loosely described as a crime novel, but it is more nuanced than that.  Looking back, SETMD also has the same set-up and style as all the Brodie novels:  missing girls, multiple storylines, with one told as flashbacks, with a slow convergence of these plot threads over the course of the book.  And then there is Jackson.  If you don't love Jackson in all of his confused, grumpy, depressed, but clearly trying to be a better person and a better father to his now 2 kids, glory, you will not enjoy these books.

Our fearless leader, Kathy, and I were discussing whether or not you need to read the series in order.  We decided that you could easily enjoy this book for its own merits, but if you really liked it, you would want to go back and re-read the others in order.  For the record, I think When Will There Be Good News? is the best of the 4, but SETMD is very good.

I should also mention that the titles refers to this Emily Dickinson poem. Parts of the poem are reproduced at the novel's end, but the tone and subject of the poem are echoed in Atkinson's book.  Reading the poem first, will put you in the right frame of mind for the novel.

The plot is dependent on the characters here.  At the book's beginning we are introduced to our 3 main windows into the story, overweight, middle aged spinster/retired police officer Tracy, aging actress Tilly, and Jackson.  Atkinson spends time describing the same scene at a British shopping mall from all three of their perspectives.  All three have a connection to "lost" children, but their deeper connection, beyond being in the same place at the same time in the novel's opening, is slowly revealed over the course of the novel.  In the end, they all converge into an extremely climatic scene, but you have to trust Atkinson to get you there.

The pace is standard Atkinson, it starts scattered and slow, but steadily builds.  She gets you wrapped up in the characters and their choices.  We grimace at some choices and cheer for others.  These are real, flawed people who you might not always agree with, but who you always root for.  As the book progresses and the story lines converge (and especially as the plot twists are revealed) the story gains momentum, shifting into a higher gear for the last third.  So as expected, if you allow Atkinson to set the stage and trust her, she will reward you with a great book.

The tone is decidedly darker than the others in the series.  All of these books are based on Jackson's obsession with finding lost girls due to the still unsolved murder of her sister when she was a teenager.  He has just come out of a marriage in which his second wife swindled him of everything and is using the "freedom" this act has allowed him to travel the British countryside.  He is still a PI, but is only working one case for a client in New Zealand.  While at first, it seems like a "happy case" for Jackson, since the lost girl is his client, not the family of a child thought long dead as he usually is working on, he quickly unravels a very dark and disturbing story of stolen children, deception, and murder.

Jackson spends much of the novel brooding about his own loss.  Tracy is caught up in a macabre tale herself, and Tilly is slowly loosing her mind to dementia.  Jackson's skills as a PI are definitely fading with age, but his love for family is growing.  In the end, some good people get away with some morally questionable things, some bad people get what they deserve, and some not as bad people get punished more harshly than they deserve.  Overall, I was satisfied at the book's end, but I would warn readers that it is not a traditionally "happy" ending.  Atkinson has some scathing things to say about human nature.

ON a lighter note, Julia is here a lot more than the last book.  While her and Jackson are no longer romantically involved, she is still is go-to voice of reason.  And now that they have Nathan together, I hope to see a lot more of Julia; that is, if there are more books in the series.

I should also note that Atkinson spends a lot more time than usual on the setting here.  There are wonderful descriptions of the Yorkshire landscape, the abbeys Jackosn finds piece in visiting, the sea, and the woods.  Also the horror maven in me loved the cute references to the vampire loving visitors to Whitby, which is a key town in Dracula.  But in general, there is much more time devoted to landscape here than I remember in past novels in the series.  It was a nice addition.  Turns out Atkinson herself longs for her home of Yorkshire, much like Jackson, now that she lives in Scotland.

Three Words That Describe This Book: character-centered, multiple-story lines, steadily building pace

Readalikes:  Another author who uses a complex, multiple story line plot to great effect is Dan Chaon.  Try Await Your Reply which I described in detail here and here.  The similarity between SETMD and AYR is striking, despite the fact that they share nothing in terms of plot.  It is all about the feel here.

Michael Chabon and Ian McEwan also share Atkinson's complexly layered plot lines, character centered storytelling, and darker themes all leveled a bit by subtle, dark humor.

If you want to read a more traditional mystery series which is similar to Atkinson, I would suggest either Walter Mosely's Easy Rawlins' series (darker, brooding, on the fringes investigator, great sense of place) or Louise Penny (sense of place, character centered, middle aged investigator).  Mosely is much darker than Penny, but both have similar pacing and complexity to Atkinson.  Also, your enjoyment of all three series will hinge on whether or not you want to follow the investigator.

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