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Booker Longlist Review: My Sister the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

I am reading the longlist in the following order: first, the books I have in hand, from shortest to longest. I read Lanny a few weeks ago, and by coincidence it is one of the shortest. When the list was announced I went to my library Overdrive site and snagged four of the entries available in the US. I started with My Sister the Serial Killer and finished it in an evening, since it’s short and eminently readable.

As I said in my earlier post, I’ve been avoiding this book for months. I kept seeing it in bookstores and it’s a lovely hardcover edition, small and compact with great paper and font. But I balked at paying hardcover book prices for a novella that sounded like a genre book marketed as lit fic. Then it won the Tournament of Books in the spring, and the readers who loved it really loved it. I checked it out of the library but returned it without opening it. Then it made the Women’s Prize longlist, and once again, some readers really loved it. This prize mixes the readable with the more experimental, and MStSK clearly fell on the readable side. I passed again.

But once it was on the longlist, I caved. I started reading before dinner (the longlist was announced at 4pm my time) and finished before 11pm. It was terrific! I was so wrong about this book. It is most definitely about a sister who is a serial killer, but it’s about a lot more: sibling relationships, family relationships, gender in a patriarchal society, the burdens of externally and self-imposed responsibilities, all layered into a deceptively small and light package. And the voice is fantastic.

It’s a debut novel, albeit a very accomplished one, and perhaps because of that none of the “twists” (if that’s what the author meant them to be) were a surprise. But they all fit the plot and the theme. I could see them all coming and I nodded my head at them because it made so much sense that things turned out as they did. Both the sisters are portrayed in nuanced, complex ways, and their relationship was beautifully done. I don’t have siblings, but I’ve observed TheH’s sibling relationships, and my cousins, who are mostly women, have equally complicated and fascinating relationships (without the serial killing, obviously). Everything about Korede’s attitudes toward Ayoola rang true, and Ayoola was equal parts infuriating and charismatic. Their bond came so alive on the page.

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Case Histories by Kate Atkinson

Kate Atkinson just released her fifth Jackson Brodie novel after a years-long hiatus in which she wrote acclaimed general/literary fiction novels. I started and put aside this one years ago, and then I intended to go back after watching and enjoying Jason Isaacs in the TV adaptation but it has languished on my TBR. Discussion of the latest Brodie piqued my interest again, though, so I picked it up and started over from the beginning. This time I was prepared for the discursive, meandering style and the lack of emphasis on the actual investigative procedure aspect, and I enjoyed it a lot. So much, in fact, that I went straight on to start the next installment, One Good Turn.

Jackson Brodie is a 45-year-old PI. He’s an ex-military policeman and an ex-detective, born in Yorkshire but who has lived in Cambridge for the last decade-plus. He is recently divorced and shares custody of his eight-year-old daughter. His ex-wife, who when married to him neither wore a wedding ring nor changed her name, is now living with a Cambridge lecturer and knits, gardens, and generally does the hausfrau things she scorned with Jackson. Jackson doesn’t drink too much, but he has recently gone back to smoking too much and spends a lot of time musing about his life in internal monologues.

The plot itself comprises three crime threads, all of which we see from the characters’ POVs. The first thread involves the disappearance 35 years ago of a young child, Olivia, who is beloved by her sisters and her mother (the father, a self-described brilliant mathematician academic, is barely involved with his family). Her now middle-aged sisters discover her favorite stuffed animal among her fathers’ things after his death, which leaves them stunned and looking for answers. The second thread is about the senseless, unsolved killing of an 18-year-old young woman named Laura ten years previously and her father’s inability to stop looking for the killer. The third thread concerns a young family in which the wife was convicted of her husband’s brutal murder and their baby daughter Tanya was given to her paternal grandparents, but who as a teenager has disappeared. There is also a fourth character, Binky Rain, a very old woman who has dozens of cats and who calls Jackson every time one of them goes missing.

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20 Books of Summer: Books 1-3

It’s almost July and I’ve only finished three of my 20 books. Ack! Oh well, better than zero I suppose. One was for the Romance TBR Challenge and two others were on my list.

A Month in the Country by JL Carr.

So many people have raved about this book, including Barb and Liz, that I was sure I’d love it, and when I found a gently used copy in my local used bookstore I snapped it up. It has sat on my shelf for quite a while, though, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity to dive it. It is a short book, more of a novella, and it was nominated for the Booker Prize in 1980.

I don’t know why I expected this to be a relatively spare, unemotional book because it’s quite the opposite. The language is lush and the reader is immediately enmeshed in the atmosphere of a Yorkshire village just after WW1. The narrator, Tom Birkin, is a veteran who has come to this village to uncover a mural buried under coats of whitewash in a village church. He is separated from his wife, suffering the aftereffects of battle, and generally at a not-great place. As he works on the mural he slowly makes connections with villagers and with another veteran who is working there and comes to a more peaceful place. The novel has been described as elegant and poetic, and it is that.

It took me a while for the book to work its magic on me, perhaps because I was (for no good reason) expecting a different style. I didn’t warm immediately to Tom himself, but when he started to interact with the villagers and become part of the community, it came to life. There are some sad scenes and some quite funny scenes (e.g. when Tom substitutes for Mr. Ellerbeck at a church meeting). Overall, though, it felt like a book written in mid-century, not the late 1970s. Reading Carr’s biography it is clear he was an unusual person, so that might account for the tone. Anyway, it was excellent, even if I appreciated it more than was captivated by it. I imagine if I read it a second time I will start raving about it too, though.


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SuperWendy’s TBR Challenge for June: Lady Polly

I read this in time for the June 19 deadline but I didn’t get it written up before we left for Wales and then I was occupied with walking and writing about walking. But it’s still June, so at least I made the month.

The prompt challenge for June was historical, of which I have many in the TBR. As usual I chose from my Harlequin TBR and I decided to go with a favorite author. Cornick wrote a bunch of trads before she switched to single-title historicals and I’ve been reading through the new-to-me ones over the last couple of years. They are in the vein of the old Signet Regencies and she knows her historical material so they hit my comfort-read sweet spot. Lady Polly is no different; while I didn’t love every aspect of it, I found it an enjoyable read with a wonderful hero.

The book is part of a series, but while there are clearly characters who starred in an earlier installment, you don’t need to have read it for this story to make sense (I know I’ve read the previous one but I didn’t remember much about it and it didn’t matter).

Lady Polly Seagrave and Lord Henry Marchnight were in love with each other but he became embroiled in a scandal and was considered off-limits by her family. When Lord Henry asked Lady Polly to flout convention and elope, she hesitated and Lord Henry told her that was the end of them forever. Five years later, Polly is still single, refusing every eligible offer she gets. Lord Henry returns from wherever he’s been (somewhere debauching, everyone thinks) and resumes contact with her. Slowly they reestablish trust and admit they still have feelings for each other. But Henry is considered to be too dissolute etc. to be a proper match for Polly. What to do.

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Mini-reviews of recent reads

I just finished two very different translated novels, one a literary novel by a highly acclaimed Chinese writer in exile, the other a police procedural by a bestselling Japanese author of mysteries. I needed the latter to give my brain a rest after the former. I also finished a highly praised novel that didn’t work at all for me. I felt as if I’d read a different book than everyone else.

China Dream by Ma Jian

Ma Jian has been writing novels and nonfiction about Chinese society since the 1980s, and his critical views have led to his books being banned in China and his life in exile in the UK. The title of this book is taken from a speech by the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, who used the term to herald an era of “national rejuvenation” which would lead to China becoming the world’s greatest superpower. Ma Jian explores the costs that this dream imposes on ordinary Chinese people, especially those who are left behind.

Ma Daode is a government official in a regional city who seeks to create a China Dream Device, which will be implanted in all citizens and replace their individual dreams with a collective one of Chinese hegemony. His daily life, however, involves carrying out government policies like the demolition of villages to make way for economic development. Ma Daode is an extreme parody of a corrupt official, one with so many mistresses he can barely keep track of them, who takes bribes from all comers, and who ignores the welfare of the people affected by his actions.

But Ma Daode, who was a young man at the time of the Cultural Revolution, is increasingly bedeviled by nightmares of the violence and destruction of that time, in which he was both victim and perpetrator. As the story progresses, the past and the present become fused together for him, and no amount of sex and alcohol can suppress his torment.

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