Big Sky by Kate Atkinson

Having finally caught up with the fourth book in Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie series last year (Started Early, Took My Dog), I have now been able to move on to the new one, Big Sky. For those people who have been reading each book in the series as it was published, there has been a nine year wait between books four and five!

In Big Sky, private investigator Jackson is on the trail of a client’s cheating husband, while also trying, without much success, to keep his teenage son, Nathan, entertained. Nathan’s mother – Jackson’s ex-partner Julia – is busy filming the latest episodes of the TV police drama in which she has a starring role, so thirteen-year-old Nathan has been entrusted to Jackson for the summer, along with Julia’s ageing Labrador, Dido.

Meanwhile, we meet Vince, a man for whom everything seems to be going wrong all at once. First he lost his job, then he split up with his wife and had to move out of the family home, and to make matters worse, he feels that he no longer fits in with his group of friends – they are ‘golfing friends, not friend friends’. Depressed and desperate, Vince finds himself standing on the edge of a cliff and it is here that his path crosses with Jackson’s as both men are drawn into a case involving a ring of crime with its roots going back decades.

Beginning with Jackson and his son watching a recreation of a naval battle on the lake in Scarborough’s Peasholm Park and then moving on to Whitby and Bridlington, the story takes place in and around the seaside towns of the North Yorkshire coast, an area I know well from my own childhood summer holidays. The characters in this novel are not having an idyllic summer by any stretch of the imagination, however, as this is a particularly dark Brodie novel with themes including online paedophilia, human trafficking and sexual abuse. Sadly, it’s all very current and topical.

Like the other books in this series, the plot at first seems to consist of several random, unconnected threads. It takes a while for them to start coming together, but of course they do, linked in traditional Kate Atkinson fashion by a series of coincidences and unusual circumstances. Characters who, at the beginning of the book, appear to have no relation to each other, turn out to be connected in the most unexpected ways. Jackson is at the heart of the story and I always enjoy spending time inside his thoughts (I love his dry, cynical sense of humour), but we also see things from the perspectives of many other characters, all of whom are equally important to the plot.

I particularly liked Crystal, the wife of one of Vince’s golfing friends, who at first appears shallow and artificial, but gradually proves to be a brave and compassionate woman trying to overcome her difficult past and protect her little girl Candy and sixteen-year-old stepson Harry (who is another great character – ‘young for his age but also old for his age’). I also became quite fond of Bunny, the kind-hearted elderly drag queen at the theatre where Harry works, and it was good to be reacquainted with Reggie Chase, the teenage girl from When Will There Be Good News? who is now a police officer tasked with investigating historic allegations of sex abuse.

The Jackson Brodie novels are not my favourites of Kate Atkinson’s books, but I have enjoyed them all, including this one. I still have a few of her standalone books left to read and am hoping to get round to reading Transcription soon, as it has been on my TBR since shortly after it was published!

Started Early, Took My Dog by Kate Atkinson

This is the fourth book in Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie series. For some reason, after reading the first three in quick succession in 2015, I never moved on to this one and it was only with the publication of the fifth book, Big Sky, earlier this year that I remembered I still needed to read it. Fortunately, the Jackson Brodie novels all stand alone very well so I found that it didn’t matter at all that I had left such a long gap between books three and four.

The plot of Started Early, Took My Dog is actually quite difficult to describe, but I’ll do my best. A good place to start is probably with Tracy Waterhouse, a retired police superintendent now working as head of security at the Merrion Shopping Centre in Leeds. Tracy is lonely and bored – she has no family, no friends and no social life; she gets up in the morning, goes to work, then comes home to spend every evening alone eating chocolate in front of the television. Then, one day, as she patrols the Merrion Centre, she sees a little girl being mistreated by Kelly Cross, a prostitute and drug addict whom Tracy recognises from her police days. She makes the decision to intervene and suddenly life becomes much more eventful!

While Tracy is trying to help an abused child, in a parallel storyline the novel’s other main protagonist, private investigator Jackson Brodie, is carrying out a good deed of his own. With a series of failed relationships behind him, Jackson is almost as lonely as Tracy, and when he witnesses a dog being kicked by its owner, he steps in and rescues it. The dog then becomes his inseparable companion as he embarks on his latest case – trying to trace the biological parents of Hope McMaster, a woman who was adopted as a child and grew up in New Zealand. This proves to be more difficult than he expected, because as soon as he starts asking questions it becomes obvious that those who do know the truth about Hope’s parentage will do anything to cover it up.

Jackson’s story quickly begins to intertwine with Tracy’s when he discovers that the murder of a woman in 1975 – a murder scene at which Tracy, then a young police officer, had been present – may have had something to do with the mystery of Hope’s origins. The novel moves backwards and forwards between the 1970s and 2010, showing how the events of the past have had an impact on the events of the present. Some of Tracy’s actions and choices following her encounter with the little girl in the Merrion Centre, for example, seem implausible at first but make more sense once you gain a deeper understanding of her background and her earlier experiences.

As with the other Jackson Brodie books, I found that the crime element of this one took second place to the characters. I thought Tracy was a great character and I loved her relationship with little Courtney, and, similarly, I enjoyed watching Jackson bonding with his new canine companion. The other character who stood out for me was Tilly, an elderly actress who is in the early stages of dementia; the way Kate Atkinson portrays Tilly’s fear and confusion over what is happening felt, to me, very convincing and very moving.

While the characters I’ve mentioned above were excellent, however, there were too many others whom I struggled to distinguish from each other; in particular, the other police officers involved in the 1975 storyline all seemed to blend into one which made that part of the book difficult to follow. There were also some subplots that didn’t seem to go anywhere and some important questions that remained unanswered at the end. Compared with the first three books in the series, I thought this one was disappointing. I’m sure I will still read Big Sky, but there are also a few other Kate Atkinson books I haven’t read yet: Transcription, Emotionally Weird and Not the End of the World. Have you read any of those and is there one you would particularly recommend?

Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson

behind-the-scenes-at-the-museum This was Kate Atkinson’s first novel, published in 1995, and yet it’s one of the last of her books that I’ve read. Having read and loved her two most recent books, Life After Life and A God in Ruins, as well as Human Croquet and three of the Jackson Brodie mysteries, I was curious to see what her earliest work was like – but I can honestly say this doesn’t feel like a first novel. It’s ambitious, accomplished, and covers some of the themes and ideas she would return to again in later books.

Behind the Scenes at the Museum is narrated by Ruby Lennox; we first meet her in 1951 while she’s still in the womb, before following her through birth, childhood and into adulthood. Along the way we get to know Ruby’s parents – the irresponsible, lying, cheating George and the long-suffering Bunty – and her two older sisters, naughty Gillian and quiet Patricia. They’re not a particularly happy family but, at least at first, they are leading a fairly normal life in their rooms above the pet shop they own in York. When she is four years old, Ruby is sent away to stay with her Aunt Babs for a while; she’s not sure why, and it’s after this that everything seems to start going wrong.

Each chapter narrated by Ruby is followed by another chapter (which Atkinson calls Footnotes but are usually as long, if not longer than, the actual chapters) telling the story of the previous generations of Ruby’s family. These Footnotes are not necessarily given in chronological order, so in one we might read about Ruby’s great-grandmother, Alice, before jumping forward in time to meet Bunty as a child, and then back again for an episode from Bunty’s mother’s teenage years. If this all sounds very complicated, that’s because it is! I would highly recommend drawing a quick family tree to refer to as you read; that’s what I did and I would have struggled without it.

The quotes on the back cover of the book describe it as ‘hilarious’ and ‘outrageously funny’. I don’t think I would go that far, but Kate Atkinson does have a great sense of humour and there are certainly some very funny scenes in this book (I particularly enjoyed the family holiday in Scotland). However, I also found this quite a sad book and there were a few moments, especially near the end, which brought tears to my eyes. Ruby and her family have to endure lots of disasters and tragedies over the years – deaths, illnesses, fires, betrayals – and so do members of the earlier generations. Sometimes we know in advance what is going to happen – Ruby tells us very early in the book how a certain character is going to die – but in other cases we are taken by surprise.

All of this made me think about the importance of perspective in the novel. Ruby is a young child throughout most of this book and her lack of understanding and awareness make her an unreliable narrator at times. Had the story been written from Bunty’s perspective, for example, or Patricia’s, we would have been given a completely different impression of most of the people and incidents we only have the chance to see through Ruby’s eyes. Some revelations in the final chapters, not just about Ruby but about other characters too, had me flicking back through the book to see if there had been clues that I’d missed – and although there were a few, I think it was simply that I had placed too much trust in Ruby as a narrator instead of reading between the lines and thinking for myself.

Behind the Scenes at the Museum is an excellent novel and as with so many of the other Kate Atkinson books I’ve read, I didn’t want to put it down. I only have a few more left to read now – Emotionally Weird, Not the End of the World and Started Early, Took My Dog – and am looking forward to all three.

My Commonplace Book: October 2016

A summary of last month’s reading, in words and pictures.

commonplace book
a notebook in which quotations, poems, remarks, etc, that catch the owner’s attention are entered

Collins English Dictionary


“Most people only want a quiet life,” I said. “Even those of us who were once radicals.” I smiled wryly at Roger. He nodded in acknowledgement.

“Fanatics on both sides,” old Ryprose said gloomily. “And all we poor ordinary folk in the middle. Sometimes I fear they will bring death to us all.”

Revelation by CJ Sansom (2008)



“Books,” the driver resumed. “I’m a great reader. I am. Not poetry. Love stories and murder books. I joined one o’ them” – he heaved a long sigh; with vast effort his mind laboured and brought forth – “circulatin’ libraries”. He brooded darkly. “But I’m sick of it now. I’ve read all that’s any good in it.”

The Moving Toyshop by Edmund Crispin (1946)


“We shall wait upon tomorrow,” he said.

“But – what if tomorrow is worse than today?”

“Then we shall wait upon the day after tomorrow.”

“And so forth?” I asked.

“And so forth,” Dogger said.

The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches by Alan Bradley (2014)


In his masterwork, The Landscape of Criminal Investigation, Atticus Pünd had written: ‘One can think of the truth as eine vertiefung – a sort of deep valley which may not be visible from a distance but which will come upon you quite suddenly. There are many ways to arrive there. A line of questioning that turns out to be irrelevant still has the power to bring you nearer to your goal. There are no wasted journeys in the detection of a crime.’

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz (2016)


“But seriously Poirot, what a hobby! Compare that to -” his voice sank to an appreciative purr – “an easy chair in front of a wood fire in a long low room lined with books – must be a long room – not a square one. Books all round one. A glass of port – and a book open in your hand. Time rolls back as you read.”

The Labours of Hercules by Agatha Christie (1947)



“Watch and wait,” says Burghley. “You have a valuable nugget of information, but that is all it is at this stage. Watch the lady; watch and wait.” Cecil is reminded of being fleeced by a card trickster once, who had said the very same thing – watch the lady. He lost all the gold buttons from his doublet. That was a lesson learned.

Watch the Lady by Elizabeth Fremantle (2015)


Sometimes I would like to cry. I close my eyes. Why weren’t we designed so that we can close our ears as well? (Perhaps because we would never open them.) Is there some way that I could accelerate my evolution and develop earlids?

Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson (1995)


Why the Egyptian, Arabic, Abyssinian, Choctaw? Well, what tongue does the wind talk? What nationality is a storm? What country do rains come from? What color is lightning? Where does thunder go when it dies?

Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury (1962)



And as the seconds and minutes moved on, I pondered Man’s efforts at the representation or ‘capture’ of Time, and I thought how, for Clockmakers like Hollers, the very Commodity with which they were trying to work was a heartless and capricious Enemy, who stole from them all the while and never rested.

Merivel: A Man of His Time by Rose Tremain (2013)


A Gothic gate, richly ornamented with fret-work, which opened into the main body of the edifice, but which was now obstructed with brush-wood, remained entire. Above the vast and magnificent portal of this gate arose a window of the same order, whose pointed arches still exhibited fragments of stained glass, once the pride of monkish devotion. La Motte, thinking it possible it might yet shelter some human being, advanced to the gate and lifted a mossy knocker. The hollow sounds rung through the emptiness of the place. After waiting a few minutes, he forced back the gate, which was heavy with iron work, and creaked harshly on its hinges…

The Romance of the Forest by Ann Radcliffe (1791)


I could not possibly go home, I reflected, and add as a serious contribution to the study of women and fiction that women have less hair on their bodies than men, or that the age of puberty among the South Sea Islanders is nine — or is it ninety? — even the handwriting had become in its distraction indecipherable. It was disgraceful to have nothing more weighty or respectable to show after a whole morning’s work.

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf (1929)



Not everyone can write as legibly as I; Father made me spend hours at my tablets, saying that my poems must be written down by me as I myself have composed them, so they will not be distorted in later years by other singers. “For you have great gifts from the Muses,” he said. “I would not have them lost to the world that comes after.”

Burning Sappho by Martha Rofheart (1974)


“I ain’t in the habit of picking other folks’ roses without leave,” said she.

As Rebecca spoke she started violently and lost sight of her resentment, for something singular happened. Suddenly the rosebush was agitated violently as if by a gust of wind, yet it was a remarkably still day. Not a leaf of the hydrangea standing on the terrace close to the rose trembled.

“What on earth -” began Rebecca; then she stopped with a gasp at the sight of the other woman’s face. Although a face, it gave somehow the impression of a desperately clutched hand of secrecy.

Small and Spooky edited by M.R. Nelson (2016)


Time was not something then we thought of as an item that possessed an ending, but something that would go on forever, all rested and stopped in that moment. Hard to say what I mean by that. You look back at all the endless years when you never had that thought. I am doing that now as I write these words in Tennessee. I am thinking of the days without end of my life.

Days Without End by Sebastian Barry (2016)


“You don’t think there’ll really be a war, do you?” she asked anxiously, as her work was for the maimed wrecks of men left by the 1914-18 war – and I could understand her horror of another. But when I looked at the Green Cat I was not sure and I did not reply.

A Chelsea Concerto by Frances Faviell (1959)


Favourite books read in October: Revelation, The Moving Toyshop and Magpie Murders

My Commonplace Book: March 2016

commonplace book
a notebook in which quotations, poems, remarks, etc, that catch the owner’s attention are entered

Collins English Dictionary


A summary of this month’s reading, in words and pictures.


He had a narrow, swarthy face with a high forehead, so high he had his cropped dark hair brushed forward – he was losing his hair, then. His eyes slanted downward, sensual, melancholic and secretive. Saints in the churches, painted on panels and murals, had halos of light around their heads and bodies; the prince seemed to have a tracing of darkness, as if he was standing in front of a prince-shaped hole that led into something terrible, and you could just catch glimpses of it when he moved…

The Red Lily Crown by Elizabeth Loupas (2014)


Do you keep time in the same place that you save it? If so why is it so difficult to find? It must be in a very safe place.

Human Croquet by Kate Atkinson (1997)


Miss Rebecca was not, then, in the least kind or placable. All the world used her ill, said this young misanthropist, and we may be pretty certain that persons whom all the world treats ill, deserve entirely the treatment they get. The world is a looking-glass, and gives back to every man the reflection of his own face. Frown at it, and it will in turn look sourly upon you; laugh at it and with it, and it is a jolly kind companion; and so let all young persons take their choice.

Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray (1847)


Buddhist caves, two hundred and fifty BC…? It was the Emperor Ashoka who had ordered them to be made, he felt almost sure about that. But there was something else, something to do with the shape of the caves, that escaped him. Was it about meditation? He hadn’t been paying close attention, his mind had been preoccupied, and now their purpose remained a mystery – as it seemed so much in this country was destined to, at least for him.

Arctic Summer by Damon Galgut (2014)


The children of Dynmouth were as children anywhere. They led double lives; more regularly than their elders they travelled without moving from a room. They saw a different world: the sun looked different to them, and so did Dynmouth’s trees and grass and sand. Dogs loomed at a different level, eye to eye. Cats arched their tiger’s backs, and the birds behind bars in Moult’s Hardware and Pet Supplies gazed beadily down, appearing to speak messages.

The Children of Dynmouth by William Trevor (1976)


Days lived, whether full or empty, whether busy or serene, are but days gone by, and the ashes of the past weigh the same in every hand.

The Royal Succession by Maurice Druon (1957)


As for the cold, he had never experienced anything like it: a dry, iron clamp upon the land, like death itself, full of unexpected beauty, like the hard crystals that formed on the inside of the windows. The cold did something strange to the quality of sounds around the farm, deadening all background noise so that the smallest scratching or whisper was emphasised. It was easy to see how the unwary settler could die in such a scene, lulled into marvelling at its deadly beauty even as his blood began to freeze.

A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale (2015)



Under Dad’s philosophy, books were not shape-shifting constructions of a reader’s imagination. Novels, he said, offered the specific clues, maps and guidelines necessary for their own evaluation. By clues, he did not mean metaphors and he did not mean symbolism. He meant actual clues. To him, every book was its own treasure map. A good novel, he said, left the close reader with a useful souvenir. All you needed to do was learn to see what was right under your nose.

The Madwoman Upstairs by Catherine Lowell (2016)


“Robert has been led most of his life by his ambition – our family’s ambition – for him to be king. All of us have paid a price, for some the highest price, for him to fulfil that desire, but we have done so because we see in him something that lifts him above most other men; something that makes us hope. He has the iron will of our grandfather and, yes, the hot blood of our father, though he’ll not hear the latter said, but he also has the heart of our mother. It is a true heart. A good heart. You must keep faith, my lady.”

Kingdom by Robyn Young (2014)


Sitting at her bureau a short time before, Frances had been picturing her lodgers in purely mercenary terms – as something like two great waddling shillings. But this, she thought, shuffling backward over the tiles, this was what it really meant to have lodgers: this odd, unintimate proximity, this rather peeled-back moment, where the only thing between herself and a naked Mrs Barber was a few feet of kitchen and a thin scullery door.

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters (2014)


“I think you’ll find most women in pursuit of a husband share an interest in appearing less educated than they really are,” said Beatrice. “It is why I have a low opinion of them.”

“Of women, miss?” said Abigail.

“No, of husbands,” said Beatrice.

The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson (2016)


Knighthood’s not for the likes of these people; for Madame Perrers’ brood. He thought she knew her place. But she’s overreached herself; she’s as grasping as the rest of them, after all. Do these people think they can buy or steal everything?

The People’s Queen by Vanora Bennett (2010)


Favourite books this month: The Red Lily Crown and The Summer Before the War.

Human Croquet by Kate Atkinson

Having read Kate Atkinson’s two most recent books, Life After Life and A God in Ruins, as well as some of her Jackson Brodie mysteries, I’ve been curious about her earlier novels and was pleased to see this one from 1997 on the library shelf. I knew nothing about this novel before I started to read it and I think that was a good thing because this is a story packed with surprises, plot twists and weird and wonderful occurrences. I have done my best here to give you an idea of what the book is about without giving too much away.

Human Croquet Human Croquet is narrated by sixteen-year-old Isobel Fairfax who lives with her family in a house called Arden in a small town somewhere in the north of England. Isobel’s family consists of her brother, Charles, their Aunt Vinny, and their father Gordon, who has recently returned after a long absence, bringing with him a new wife, Debbie. Gordon’s first wife, Eliza – mother of Isobel and Charles – disappeared years ago, although her presence at Arden can still be felt in small and unexpected ways. Throughout the novel we move between the Present (Isobel’s life in the 1960s) and the Past (in which we learn more about the early days of Gordon’s marriage to Eliza and the events leading up to her disappearance).

Now, this might all sound quite straightforward so far, but I’ve promised some surprises, plot twists and weird and wonderful occurrences – and yes, there are plenty of those! One of the first indications we get that something is not right in Isobel’s world comes when she finds herself suddenly slipping through time, briefly emerging in another period before just as suddenly returning to her own time. Charles, who is obsessed with the paranormal, is envious, telling her she must have experienced a time warp. But this is only the beginning of a series of increasingly bizarre things which happen to Isobel and her family. Things also become darker and darker as Isobel tries to make sense of what is going on and the truth about Eliza is slowly revealed.

Human Croquet is a wonderfully creative and imaginative story in which Atkinson plays with time and with our perceptions of what is real and what is unreal. The novel is rich in literary references and allusions; the name of Isobel’s home, Arden, brings to mind the Forest of Arden in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, and both the Shakespearean theme and the forest/tree symbolism continue throughout the book. Even the title, Human Croquet, has a meaning which only really becomes clear right at the end of the novel and which made me think again about Isobel’s role in the story.

My favourite thing, though, about this – and all of Atkinson’s books – is the characterisation. Isobel’s narrative voice is very strong and distinctive, sometimes funny, sometimes sad, and peppered with witty observations, self-deprecating humour and clever wordplay. Through Isobel’s eyes the rest of the Fairfax family, as well as their friends and neighbours, come to life in vivid detail. Among the most memorable are the people next door, timid Mrs Baxter and her daughter Audrey, both of whom live in fear of the sinister ‘Daddy’. The Fairfaxes are not the only troubled family in Human Croquet; this is definitely not a happy story, so I was pleased to find that there are some lighter moments to alleviate the darkness.

I haven’t read anything by Kate Atkinson yet that hasn’t impressed me; I’m looking forward to reading the rest of her earlier books, as well as Started Early, Took My Dog, the only Jackson Brodie novel I haven’t read yet. What is your favourite Kate Atkinson book?

A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson

A God in Ruins It’s been nearly three years since I read my first Kate Atkinson novel, Life After Life, in which Ursula Todd lives her life over and over again, each new life giving her a chance to alter decisions and mistakes made in the one before. Since then I’ve been catching up with Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie mystery series (I only have one of those left to read) but last week I decided it was time to pick up her latest novel, A God in Ruins, and reacquaint myself with the Todd family.

A God in Ruins is not exactly a sequel to Life After Life – it can be better described as a ‘companion novel’ – and both do stand alone. There are some similarities between the two novels, but there’s also a big difference. While Life After Life follows several different versions of the same person’s life, A God in Ruins concentrates on someone who lives just one life: his name is Teddy Todd and he is Ursula’s younger brother.

Teddy’s story is told in non-chronological order, so that a chapter about his childhood is followed by one set towards the end of his life and then another describing his time as a World War II bomber pilot (there are several wartime chapters interspersed throughout the novel). We also get to know Teddy’s wife, Nancy (who was literally the ‘girl next door’), their daughter, Viola, and grandchildren, Sunny and Bertie. The stories of each of these people unfold gradually, chapter by chapter, and the non-linear timeline means that we are sometimes given hints of something that has happened in the past or will happen in the future but have to wait until later in the book for a revelation. Flashbacks and ‘flashforwards’ often happen in the middle of a paragraph or even a sentence, which I found intriguing rather than confusing.

I enjoyed A God in Ruins but didn’t love it as much as I loved Life After Life, maybe because it felt less innovative without the device of one person living many different lives. Still, many of the same themes are here: life and death, fate and the ways in which our actions in the present can have big consequences in the future, and, of course, the effects of war. I mentioned that there are several chapters on Teddy’s experiences piloting a Halifax bomber during the war. I didn’t initially find these sections very engaging (in the words of Nancy, Teddy’s wife, “Let’s talk about something more interesting than the mechanics of bombing”), but eventually I was drawn in and started to enjoy those chapters as much as the others.

My favourite thing about Kate Atkinson’s writing is the way she creates characters who feel so real and believable – even if some of them are not easy to like, they are still interesting and fully developed. Viola, for example, is a cold and bitter person, unable to offer her children any love and affection, and as her father grows older, resenting every minute of the time she has to spend caring for him. At first it seems that there is no reason for Viola’s selfish behaviour, but later in the novel we learn of something that happened in her childhood that could provide an explanation.

I also liked all the little literary references Atkinson slipped into the story. I was particularly pleased to see that Teddy was an Anthony Trollope reader! As for the ending of the book, I think it’s probably best if I say nothing at all – other than that it’s one of those endings people will either love or hate. Personally, I thought it was perfect; it changed the way I felt about the entire book and left me with a lot to think about, which is what all good novels should do.