Thoughts: Life after Life by Kate Atkinson

lifeKate Atkinson’s Life after Life tells the stories of Ursula Todd’s lives, from each birth to each of her deaths, in their many variations. Thus, Ursula is stillborn on a cold winter night in Englang in 1910. Or, she is born and just saved from being strangled by the umbilical cord.

The premise of being reborn is not a new one, but Atkinson’s execution is so well-done that each re-living of a moment of Ursula’s lives showed not just a what-if moment, but presented a broader picture of family life and life in Edwardian England and the Blitz. Focusing on a few of these important moments and examining how one difference affects so many lives, the lives of Ursula are never repetitive and despite knowing that Ursula would simply be reborn, I was always invested in each version of the events.

This is due to the wonderful characters around Ursula, especially her mother Sylvie who outshines Ursula as one of the strongest characters and, as always, Atkinson’s writing style. Even if I actually prefer her crime series, the dark humor and sharply-drawn characters are a delight in all her works. Perhaps it’s because she is not afraid of making fun of her characters and I always look forward to the sometimes biting comments and insights that can be found in the narrative and opinion characters have of each other. Surprisingly, I found myself less invested in the main character Ursula. Some longer moments helped round her out more, and shows how especially women’s lives can be heavily impacted and changed by gender-specific violence. But for the most part, what made me turn the page were all the other characters. This is likely due to the sometimes choppy nature of the premise, but Ursula seemed to be a conduit more than anything else to me.

The thing with this sort of premise is that of course the really is no definitive version, no ‘real’ life, despite Ursula becoming more aware of this and attempting to change events and get ‘it’ right. Even though the book is over 600 pages long, it did not feel too long. The latter part explores the idea of changing history by killing Hitler and giving Ursula one life in Germany during the 1930s, thereby connecting it to the novel’s opening. I do appreciate Atkinson not making this the focus of Life after Life, but these parts fell somewhat tacked on to the rest of the story and I finished the novel more dissatisfied than I would have without the last 100-200 pages.

And so I really did enjoy reading this novel, especially the writing and the imagery of summer days in Ursula’s home and the vividness of the horror of the Blitz. But perhaps, I appreciate the premise and set-up just a bit more than the actual story. Still, even if this one does not have me raving, I definitely recommend it. Also, I just found out that a companion novel called A God in Ruins, focusing on her brother Teddy’s story, will be published in May. So now would be a good time to pick up Life after Life, if you haven’t read it yet.

Have you read Life after Life? What did you think?

Thoughts on Audiobooks and The Girl on the Train

wpid-img-20150411-wa00002.jpg.jpegI never thought I’d say (or write) this, but here I am blogging about audiobooks. Except for a couple of years during childhood, when I was kept entertained on long car rides or during bath time with the children’s story hour on radio and endless cassette tapes of Pippi Longstocking, Bibbi Blocksberg and others, I have never quite gotten the hang of audiobooks. It’s always been fine for other people, good for them and how do they do it…but me and audioooks? Nope. The problem in my case was mostly that I didn’t like strange voices narrating, and I never really had situations where I couldn’t simply open the book, so why press play and stare at the wall or whatever you’re supposed to do while listening.

Turns out, and everyone figured this out at the dawn of time, there’s people who are trained to narrate well and some of them are blessed with truly amazing voices. Also, I was off to a friend’s wedding party using the bus (so much cheaper) rather than the train (my preferred way of travel) and since I get awful motion sickness from reading in cars or on the bus and had 5 hours to kill I downloaded The Girl on the Train. Well, let me tell you I couldn’t wait for the 5 hour journey home.

Also, as of this month I have a half hour commute on the bus to get to the uni library each work day. So, I decided to stick with the audiobook thing, and while I would prefer to read, it’s been working out quite well. Since my work day consists of some heavy reading and academic writing, I have chosen to continue thrillers, mysteries and other escapist audiobooks to listen to, my most recent one Before I go to Sleep. My only problem is that audiobooks are so expensive and the small library doesn’t have that many audiobooks, hardly any English ones and most are still actual CDs I have to convert. So I’m using audible.com at the moment. I know there’s free audiobooks, via librivox and ones in the public domain, but I’ve read most of the classics and apparently I’m picky about the narrator. For now, I try to get by with the one audiobook credit per month and usually find a second book via daily sale etc. You’re probably all blessed with amazing libraries and I guess preferring the national language also helps. Is anyone using audible?

As for The Girl on the Train, I’d been eyeing it for a bit, but usually all the hype puts me off books and I only go back and read them after the fuss has died done. I’m so glad I decided to take a chance, because for me it was certainly worth it. As the story follows Rachel on her commute for a big part of the book, it was really the perfect choice to read it while traveling. This one’s been compared to Gone Girl a lot (all the time, way to much!), and though I’ve only watched the movie, I have to admit to enjoying this one more. None of the characters are likeable, if you care about that thing, I really don’t, the female characters were mostly well-rounded, complex and contrary. There’s plently of suspense and interpersonal drama, but not really too melodramatic (which is what I got from Gone Girl). The comparison’s to Hitchcock’s Rear Window are much more apt, and Rachel’s imagining of the perfect couple Jess and Jason and the discrepancy between what people seem to be and what is going on behind closed doors would be suspenseful enough for any thriller, but add Rachel’s inability to let go and her own connection to the area and the narrative unreliability will keep you entertained to the last page. Since the story is told from other perspectives as well (though Rachel’s remains the biggest contribution), the different readers added weight to their characters and I found thm well-chosen. Since the book is told in a series of diary-like entires, the only thing I missed was being able to quickly turn a couple pages back and check the date. But other than that, a wonderful audioook experience.

Have you read The Girl on the Train? What did you think?

Lazy Sunday Reading

 

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A Face Like Glass by Frances Hardinge

 

In the underground city of Caverna the world’s most skilled craftsmen toil in the darkness to create delicacies beyond compare – wines that can remove memories, cheeses that can make you hallucinate and perfumes that convince you to trust the wearer, even as they slit your throat. The people of Caverna are more ordinary, but for one thing: their faces are as blank as untouched snow. Expressions must be learned, and only the famous Facesmiths can teach a person to show (or fake) joy, despair or fear – at a price. Into this dark and distrustful world comes Neverfell, a little girl with no memory of her past and a face so terrifying to those around her that she must wear a mask at all times. For Neverfell’s emotions are as obvious on her face as those of the most skilled Facesmiths, though entirely genuine. And that makes her very dangerous indeed …” (amazon)

Review: Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont

First things first: This is not THE Elizabeth Taylor (except maybe to hardcore lit fans!? 😉 ), but a very talented and well-known author, and even lauded as the Jane Austen of the 20th century. If you see a copy of this book that has the movie cover, don´t let it scare you off, it´s a wonderful book and I think the cover above does it much more justice.

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On a rainy Sunday in January, the recently widowed Mrs Palfrey arrives at the Claremont Hotel where she will spend her remaining days. Her fellow residents are magnificently eccentric and endlessly curious, living off crumbs of affection and snippets of gossip. Together, upper lips stiffened, they fight off their twin enemies: boredom and the Grim Reaper. Then one day Mrs Palfrey strikes up an unexpected friendship with Ludo, a handsome young writer, and learns that even the old can fall in love… (amazon.com)

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont gives us a glimpse into old age. Some of it applies more to the 1970s, what with people really living in hotels (I don´t think that´s really done anymore, except maybe for rich people in movies), but most of it is universal.  There is Mrs Palfrey´s dismay at her untrustworthy legs, the loneliness, and the fact that they often feel like they are only waiting for death.

Mrs Palfrey is described as looking too big, with huge hands and strong features, and that she would have made a distinguished man. The description of Mrs Palfrey is really not very flattering but I found that this just adds to the authenticity of the character, and Taylor is not afraid of portraying the characters and their life with grim honesty. Her observations are unrelenting and brutal and all the better because of it. However, there is also humour and sometimes even affection for her characters apparent in her writing.

Life at the Claremont consits of almost oppressing boredom and routine. The residents have little to entertain them, the food is always the same, in the evenings they sit down to knit or read or watch tv, and the long afternoons are spent walking by Mrs Palfrey. It is no wonder that they jump at each small diversion, such as the rare visits of relatives. Mrs Palfrey has a grandson in London but he cannot be bothered to visit her, and when she falls while walking and a young man named Ludo shows her kindness, Mrs Palfrey asks him to pretend to be her grandson. With Ludo´s appearance the story becomes a bit more of a comedy, although tragedy is never far away. Mrs Palfrey comes to love Ludo, who gives her attention and a purpose, and Ludo (and his writing) seems to thrive under her care.

Despite the  theme of aging, and Taylor´s unmasking of the sad states of human relationships, this novel is actually at times something of a comfort read. The residents are quite eccentric, and I enjoyed the following the progressing friendship of Mrs Palfrey and Ludo. It´s just fun enough to  not be a depressive read, but this book will stay with you  forsome time after you´ve finished it. I will definitely read more by Elizabeth Taylor!

Some of my favorite passages:

“There was usually a demonstration on Sundays, with milling crowds in Trafalgar Square and forays into Downing Street. The policemen and the horses were always sympathized with. They had the Claremont solidly behind them.” (52)

“If you don´t praise people just sometimes a little early on they die of despair, or turn into Hitlers, you know.´” (61)

“As they aged, the women seemed to become more like old men, and Mr. Osmond more like an old woman.” (68)

“She realized that she never walked now without knowing what she was doing and concentrating upon it; once, walking had been like breathing, something unheeded. The disaster of being old was in not feeling safe to venture anywhere, of seeing freedom put out of reach.” (73)

“She did not explain to him how deeply pessimistic one must be in the first place, to need the sort of optimism she now had at her command.” (98)

“It was hard work being old. It was like being a baby, in reverse. Every day for an infant means some new little thing learned; every day for the old means some little thing lost.” (184)

Have you reviewed this book? Let me know and I´ll add a link!