Wednesday, December 7, 2011

December Book Review: More Than a Mystery

I can't believe it has been four months since I last participated in the monthly Book Review Club.  I could blame my absence on spending so much time in the garden, a little traveling, or other activities, all of which are true.  But it's just as true that although I've read more books than I can remember in the past few months, few have made any kind of lasting impression on me.  That is, until I discovered Kate Atkinson.  After reading When Will There Be Good News? a few months ago, I was hooked and recently finished the book that followed it.  Finally, a book worth sharing with you!

Tracy Waterhouse, a retired police officer, is making her rounds as a security guard for a shopping mall when she sees a small child being dragged along and verbally abused by her mother.  Tracy rushes to help the poor little girl and impulsively offers the mother money to "buy" the child.

Private investigator Jackson Brodie, also a retired police detective, is once again a single man after his last wife left him, taking most of his savings with her. But he takes on an unexpected responsibility,  when he sees a thug swearing at a Border Collie and takes the dog after punching out its abusive owner.

Strange beginnings for a mystery novel, but Started Early, Took My Dog is not your typical mystery, and Kate Atkinson is not one of your typical writers of detective fiction. Even the title is quirky, a line taken from a poem by Emily Dickinson.

Started Early is the third in a series of four novels featuring private investigator Jackson Brodie.  In this novel he is more interested in finding himself and wandering about the English countryside--now with a dog at his side--than he is in the case he's accepted--finding the birth parents of a young woman adopted some thirty years ago whose adoptive parents emigrated to New Zealand where she now lives. But when Jackson discovers he is being followed and when someone tries to kill him, he begins to think there is more to this case than a simple matter of identification.

Tracy Waterhouse, unattached and resigned to living out the rest of her life eating take-out suppers alone in front of the television, finds her life turned upside down after taking young Courtney. Determined to provide Courtney a better life than she must have had with her prostitute mother, Tracy buys everything she thinks the little girl needs, including a fairy costume complete with wand that Courtney wears everywhere, and  she begins to plan trips to the zoo and the park.  She begins to worry, though, that the little girl's real mother might want her back and that buying a child is not exactly sanctioned by the law.  She realizes that establishing a new identity and moving far away where no one will question their relationship is the only answer.
When she bought the kid she made a covenant with the devil.  She could have someone to love but it would cost her everything.  She thought of the Little Mermaid, every step torture, a pain like the piercing of sharp swords.  Just to be human, to love.

Kid dipped her wand in Tracy's direction.  Granting a wish or casting a spell, hard to tell which.  Courtney had knitted herself into Tracy's soul.  What would happen if she was ripped away?

This was love.  It didn't come free, you paid in pain.  Your own.  But then nobody ever said love was easy.  Well, they did, but they were idiots.

Typical of many contemporary mystery writers, Atkinson alternates the stories of Brodie and Waterhouse along with two other characters, one of them Tillie, an aging actress. Tillie witnesses the same scene between mother and daughter as Tracy, but in the early stages of dementia, she is so confused she can't remember where she put her purse or why she is looking for a policeman.  How all these storylines fit together piques the reader's curiosity, and Atkinson skillfully weaves the threads of the plot together as the novel progresses. 

Critics have praised Atkinson's writing and often remark that her novels are more literary fiction than detective fiction. Although this series is labeled as the "Jackson Brodie" novels, other characters figure just as prominently in the book and are often more engaging. I like to think of her books as the thinking woman's mysteries.  Her voice is unique and compelling, blending the characters' thoughts with literary allusions, keen observations on society, and wit in the face of tragedy. Unlike other mysteries which I often read at a fast pace in order to find out "whodunit," I found myself stopping to savor some of her prose:
The dog scampered by his side all the way back to Bella Vista in a state of near delirium.  At the site of the train crash two years ago Jackson's life had been saved by a girl administering CPR.  Now he had been saved by the loyalty of a dog.  The less innocent he was, the more innocent his saviors became.  There was some kind of exchange at work in the universe that he didn't understand.

New granddog Eddie was found living on the streets and taken in by a pug rescue society.  He now leads a pampered life with my daughter and son-in-law, enjoying long walks in the park and watching football games--yes, that is a Chicago Bears jersey he's wearing!

Started Early, Took My Dog is a story of redemption and resiliency, of unlikely heroes and characters haunted by their past.  These are ordinary people struggling to survive in a world full of sadness, and trying to make it a better place, one child or one dog at a time.
A damaged child that could still sing could be rescued, couldn't she? Could be taken to pantomimes and circuses, zoos and petting farms and Disneyland.  Wasn't going to end up hanging around Sweet Street West looking for business. Chevaunne.  She could have been rescued once.  They could all have been rescued, all the Chevaunnes, all the Michael Braithwaites, all the starved and beaten and neglected.  If there'd been enough people to rescue them.

If you're looking for a Christmas gift for that hard-to-buy for person on your list, a book is always a perfect fit.  Whether that person is a mystery-lover or a gardener or a history buff, you're sure to find something that suits them.  And there's nothing better to give a child than the gift of the love of reading.  You might want to check out the other reviews at host Barrie Summy's for some ideas.  As for me, I hope Santa takes the hint and puts another Kate Atkinson book in my stocking!

The Poisoned Pen Bookstore--photo from Wikipedia.

Author's Disclaimer--No compensation of any kind was received for this review.  I review only books I like and purchase my own copy or check them out from the library.  This book was purchased at one of my favorite bookstores, The Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale, Arizona. An independent bookstore that I'm happy to report is still thriving despite the economy, it is known for its collection of mysteries and Southwest literature, and it hosts many, many book signings by famous authors from all over.  If you're ever in the Phoenix area, it's definitely worth a visit!


  1. Reading this right now so I am going to skip this review and come back to it later.

  2. I love a good mystery and this one sounds great. Love the whimsical title! My husband and I listen to mystery audio books during our morning commute. I wonder if I can find this one as an audio book? I will have to look for a copy at the local library.
    P.S. And I completely agree with you that books make Christmas gifts and it is important to support local independent book sellers!

  3. The Poisoned Pen is a perfect name for a bookstore! Great in-depth review. Eddie looks like a doll!

  4. For me, this book sounds like it has a lot going for it. Three things, off the top of my head: the main character looking to find himself, adoption stories, and multiple points of view. Must add to my list.

  5. Books make ideal gifts. Must look out for this one.

    Eddie the pug looks as though he's found heaven. Seems strange to me that he is named after my brother!
    Maggie X

    Nuts in May

  6. Really glad you liked this Rose as I loved it too and am hooked on Kate A, I love the way she writes. I often look for her books in charity shops but never find them, maybe she's so good that no one wants to give her away!

    Glad the lovely Pug has a good home :-)


  7. I loved this book, and was glad to see that Jackson Brodie made it to the small screen on PBS mystery show.

  8. Yeah! So good to have you back to reviewing. I guess at this time of year, you trade your gardening hat for a comfie chair by the fire with a good book.

    Lots of people have recommended Kate Atkinson to me, especially this one. Supposedly her approach to mystery writing is similar to mine. After reading this review, I can see why. I love the set up and the writing, except for the passive voice. I’m downloading a sample chapter onto my Kindle as an early Christmas present to me!

    Cute pooch and nice bookstore too.

  9. Thank you Rose, this may be just the gift for a friend! xogail

  10. Thanks for the recommendation. I enjoy mysteries--especially smart, well-written ones.

  11. Right, it's going on my list! I recently read and enjoyed the first Brodie book after seeing it on television. Not wild about the um, what's it called, The museum book of hers, but did enjoy a bit of Brodie.

  12. Very interesting review! Not sure it's for me though...

    One day I will get to The Poisoned Pen Bookstore!

  13. Hi Rose, I truly will read this post!! However, I wanted to leave a note with regard to Blackberry Lily seeds!

    Would you like me to send you some seeds? Have you tried the Milk Jug Greenhouses, yet? Put one or two out in January... you'll have these little fellows growing as "easy as pie!" :-)

  14. Pattinase, I hope you enjoy it!

    Jennifer, I'm sure this is available on audio, too. We no longer have any independent bookstores in our area, so I'm glad to visit The Poisoned Pen whenever I get to Arizona.

    Sweetbay, Thanks! Eddie is a bundle of energy, quite different from Daughter's other pug who sadly passed away in May.

    Kathy, I had trouble not writing too much in this review--it really is a great book.

    Maggie, Eddie lived with a homeless man before being taken to the shelter. I imagine he does think he's found the life of luxury! Apologies to your brother, he's actually named after a football player:)

    Suburbia, Glad you enjoy Atkinson, too! I'd never even heard of her until this summer. I might lend my book to a friend, but I won't be giving mine away either.

    Pat, I'm still looking for this PBS show--do you remember the title of the show or series?

  15. Sarah, You're right--winter finds me doing a lot more reading. Actually, I found Atkinson through Kindle--she was on a list of recommended books for me. My favorite feature of Kindle is being able to download book samples!

  16. Gail, Hope your friend enjoys this book as much as I did!

    Plantpostings, I read a lot of mysteries, but I find some of the more prolific authors get rather formulaic sometimes. Atkinson's books are anything but!

    Liz, I haven't read anything by Atkinson but the two Brodie novels; I understand her other books are rather different. I want to find the TV show with Brodie!

    Alyssa, I get to visit the Poisoned Pen only when I visit my daughter in Arizona. She's just been transferred, though, so I may not get back there for a long time, sadly.

    Shady, The winter sowing in milk jugs is a great idea--I'm going to try that this winter!

  17. I love a good mystery! This one sounds like one to check out. I am working my way through all the paperbacks we bought over the years for my husband to read while traveling....bookshelves full!
    Glad to be back into the blog world.

  18. That's funny. One of my writer-blogger friends, Leigh T. Moore (That's Write) just got back from Arizona, and I think she mentioned visiting Scottsdale. You two might have even bumped into each other while browsing the bookshelves at the store.

    Rose, I know I can trust one of your recommendations. Now that I've got a little more time on my hands, at least until January, I'll have to check this one out of the library. Either that, or I'll have to get a Kindle. The bookshelves here won't hold any more books!

  19. This author's name looked awfully familiar so I had to check my book list (yes I've read so many books I have to keep a list to remember what I've read!) and sure enough she wrote one of my favourite titles 'Behind the Scenes at the Museum'. So glad to hear her other books are just as good. I know what I'll be asking for for Christmas.

  20. Rose, I love Kate Atkinson's thoughtful books. I think I finally read them all. Thanks for the review and for always stopping by to read my blog too. Merry almost Christmas.~~Dee

  21. I am sorry to admit I read zero fiction. I have such a short attention span that I haven't found anything that will hold my interest!

  22. "the thinking woman's mysteries." Love this, and want so much to love Kate Atkinson. I love her writing, of course, but the two books I've tried (Emotionally Weird and Case Histories) were so painful and left me so unsettled that I shy away. Jackson Brodie will bring me back again, I'm sure of it. Thanks for the reminder.


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