I've talked about why I want every single one of you to read Nicola Griffith's Always a little bit already over at my own site, so I'll try not to rehash too much. That's not a problem, because there are lots and lots of reasons.
This book is the third of a series following Aud Torvingen, an uber-rich, uber-competent, uber-striking Norwegian expatriate who's been living in Atlanta for years. She's an ex-cop. She could kill you a couple dozen different ways in under a minute. Over the course of the series, we've watched her evolve from something very near sociopathic. If you've read (or read) the books in order, there's a depth to that evolution that's highly satisfying. The great thing about them, though, is that you don't have to have read the earlier books at all to enjoy the even further complication of Aud's character that takes place over the course of Always. In some ways, you could even view that progression as implied in the tension between the dual storylines of the book -- one set in the past in Atlanta as Aud teaches a self-defense class, the other in the present in Seattle as Aud gets snagged by intrigue involving a movie shooting there. The Aud in Atlanta is different from the Aud in Seattle and we slowly discover a bit of the why and how and that's she's still morphing.
I'm going to off-script a tiny bit, if you'll indulge me, because one of the things that makes this book and the series it's part of so amazing is that it's barely like a series as we think of it at all. Sara Ryan, who has written two fine novels for teenagers and a bunch of comics, was talking a bit about this at her blog this week. She said:
I’m one of those people who, when going to a restaurant that I’ve been to before, almost always orders whatever I had the last time I was there. If it’s Cup and Saucer, it will be the World Famous Garden Scramble with seasoned tofu, no cheese, and a scone. When I think about that restaurant, I’m already remembering what that particular meal tastes like, and how delicious it was last time. I am, in other words, setting myself up for repeating that experience as closely as possible.
But what if the cook at Cup and Saucer has something else to show me, breakfast-wise? What if I’d like it even better than my current standby? How am I going to know, if I never branch out?
I think for a lot of us, sequels and series are like That One Thing We Always Get at restaurants. We latch onto something in a book — a character, a setting, the rhythm of the writer’s prose, the way magic works or doesn’t. And then we want to experience it again. And again.
I totally get that, as a reader. (And, clearly, as a diner.)
But as a writer, I want to mix it up. I want to tell different kinds of stories in different ways. And yes, I also want to write new stories where characters I’ve already created show up — but maybe not in the ways, or the roles, that readers were expecting.
This is precisely what makes the Aud (rhymes with shroud) novels surprising and wonderful, the best of both worlds. The voice, the lovely writing, the character we know and are fascinated by -- those things are all there, in each of the books. But Griffith isn't giving us the same dish again and again. She's created that most interesting of things: a character who actually is changing. And who isn't changing wham-bang-sudden for the sake of narrative serendipity, but in a more incremental, challenging way. We are watching Aud get more and more human, while still getting to revel in her larger-than-life persona. And so the books are all different, because they reflect that.
If you've ever had a jones to know what goes on in James Bond's head or Jason Bourne's or Emma Peel's, this is your shot. Add a dash of Cary Grant at his most dashing, Buffy at her most sardonic, if you like. And also? In addition to realistic psychological complexity, that actually acknowledges being a person like this has emotional consequences and exacts a harsh toll, you get very sensual writing in every sense of the word. These books never lose sight of what the human body is capable of, of what it means to use your body to its full capacity, the physicality involved in beating someone up or saving someone's life. One of the most riveting sequences in the novel involves Aud's control of her mind and body being suddenly disrupted.
Okay, okay, I don't wanna spoil all the great discussion we're going to have. Clearly, I could go on. And on. Here's the first paragraph, which will probably do the trick much more nicely than my yammering:
If you walk into a bar and there's a man with a knife, what do you do? Walk out again. If you can. In Atlanta it had been a kitchen, and a woman, and I couldn't.
Who could resist an opening paragraph like that? You can read a longer excerpt here.
I'll just end by saying that I believe the reason these books don't have as large an audience as they deserve is because they get forced into any number of pigeonholes. You might see them shelved as mystery/crime, or romance, or lesbian interest, or whatever. Until bookstores catch onto the "meaning of life thriller" category (please! and credit to Sean Stewart). And, truthfully, there are elements of each of these narrow categories in play. But what this book, and the others in the series, really are is excellent literary fiction. Or, I should say, kick-ass, ass-kicking literary fiction.
So, please, join us next week, starting Monday, August 6, when we celebrate this book -- it'll be happening here and at a bunch of other sites. Join in. It's going to be fun.