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Friday, 20 February 2015

Review: Life after Life, Kate Atkinson

What if you had an infinite number of chances to live your life over and over again, until you finally got it right?

During a snowstorm in 1910 a baby is born but dies almost instantly.
During that same snowstorm in 1910, the same baby is born but lives.
A few years later, she drowns in the ocean.
In those same circumstances, she is saved by a painter.

Confused yet?

Life after Life is an astonishing story that discusses what could happen if one had the chance to keep living your life, but a slight change of circumstance or decisions change the path.

To give one such example:
On her sixteenth birthday, a friend of Ursula's brother forces a kiss on her. When he later comes to visit her, he rapes her in a back hallway. Her aunt gets her an illegal abortion, and some time later Ursula marries a man, Derek Oliphant, who reveals himself to be extremely violent. That life concludes with him beating her to death.

In the next version of her life, on her sixteenth birthday Ursula rebuffs the brother's friend's advances with a well placed right-hook and kick to the shin. Because of this, Ursula does not get pregnant, have an abortion, or meets Derek, but instead dies in an air raid.

The book is (obviously) complex but Atkinson handles it well, mapping out each of Ursula's life with great skill. It never feels unrealistic - all of the events that happen in Ursula's different lives probably did happen to various people - and the only notion that Ursula has of all these different lives are strange premonitions, the feelings of deja vu. In several cases, she tries to take it into her own hands - when she feels a dark premonition she does something to make it go away. One such instance was pushing a maid down the stairs, resulting in the maid breaking her arm, because Ursula is terrified that if the maid (Bridget) goes to London for Armistice celebrations something bad will happen (in the previous version of life, Bridget brought back influenza from the celebrations).

My description of the above shows how it would be so easy to get lost in this kind of narrative, so richly layered and complicated, but Atkinson guides the reader through well. The repetition of certain events doesn't get stale, because you're left wondering what will change. The darker thread running through, as well, is Ursula's thought of what would have happened if Hitler had never gotten a chance to live - would World War 2 have happened? What the world have been like?

It's an enjoyable, absorbing, and heart-wrenching (in places) read but well worth the perseverance.

Review: The Name of the Wind, Patrick Rothfuss

"It was night again. The Waystone Inn lay in silence, and it was a silence of three parts."

Kote is an innkeeper, assisted by his friend, Bast. One night in the woods, Kote meets a man who is known as Chronicler, and saves his life from the scrael, huge spider-like creatures. Kote brings Chronicler back to the inn, and Kote is soon revealed to be Kvothe, a man of great renown. Chronicler is desperate to record his story, and Kvothe eventually agrees. From being the son of troupers, to befriending an arcanist named Abenthy, to seeing his family get murdered by the Chandrian and struggling for years in Tarbean, and finally his long trek to the University, Rothfuss maps out Kvothe's life in intricate, breathtaking detail. The language is rich and flowing, the characters leave you no option but to get attached - whether through love or hate - and the world itself is so present. It reads like a parallel reality, what the Renaissance could have been like had there been true magic in the world. And it's just so clever - Kvothe is immensely intelligent and resourceful, making his triumphs feel even more satisfying and his lows even more painful.

I don't think I've ever read fantasy that is this good. I hardly even knew where to begin this post - how does one sum up this book in just a few lines? It's the kind of book which necessitates a lot of free time to read - I started reading it on a school night (mistake) and was in the constant dilemma of just reading one more chapter or getting the sleep desperately needed to face five hours of teaching the next day. Needless to say, one more chapter usually won out.

Friday, 6 February 2015

Review: An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, P.D. James

I think this may be the year when my enthusiasm for crime fiction may need to be curbed, as it would be so easy to not read much of anything else! Granted, I've only read two crime books, and by only two different authors, but they are such a thrill to read and so satisfying to find out the 'whodunnit'.

Enter Cordelia Gray, the protagonist of the book. Cordelia is clever, quick, and perceptive, and when she inherits the Private Detective business from her boss (who commits suicide at the beginning of the book) she wastes no time in diving into a case that's handed to her on a plate (a sorely needed case, as the business was not doing so well). The case is a suicide - a scientist in Cambridge had a son who committed suicide and he wants to find out why he did.

Every so often throughout the book, we're treated to a kind Guy-Ritchie-Sherlock-Holmes scene, in which Cordelia looks upon a situation remembering what her late boss would have told her - examine every detail, the kinds of details she needs to be looking for, etc.

The book is paced well, the description flowing without bogging down the reader, and just enough detail to tease without giving it away. It's not just a simple whodunnit, either - the story carries on for a while after we find out the truth, in which the motives are examined. It's refreshing, since a flat ending it seems such an easy trap to fall into.

Thoroughly recommend for anyone who wants to venture into crime fiction but doesn't know where to start.

Review: The Book of the Dun Cow by Walter Wangerin Jr.

Is it just me, or has anyone else ever read a book that you felt you couldn't quite grasp? This was that for me, at first... I honestly didn't feel, I don't know, clever enough to get into the complex narrative of it.... I haven't felt that since I tried reading "Pride and Prejudice" when I was 13. It didn't feel easy, at first, but I am glad I persevered. It's truly a wonderful fantasy tale. 

The protagonist of the story is a rooster called Chautecleer, in charge of a flock of hens. He's proud, impatient, but does care deeply for his flock. Little does he know, however, that they have been placed upon the Earth to protect it from an ancient evil called Wyrm, who is desperate to escape but cannot just yet. 

We are then introduced to another rooster called Senex, in charge of a different flock. He's old and has long lost the respect of his flock, particularly as he has not been able to produce an heir. Wyrm speaks to him in a dream, and soon after, Senex lays his own egg that hatches into a Cockatrice. Cockatrice kills Senex and rapes the hens in order to father basilisks, with the long term plan of conquering the land in order for Wyrm to escape. 

Chautecleer soon meets a hen who has escaped from this flock, though it takes her a long time to communicate the horrors she suffered. Thereafter, they have to prepare for war. 

It's a book examining the classic good versus evil, with Wyrm perhaps representing Satan and Cockatrice his servant from Revelation in the Bible. The overwhelming message, though, is hope and the importance of unity, and even though we are flawed we can keep great evil at bay through acts of kindness, compassion, and solidarity. It seems particularly important in these times when we have witnessed multiple atrocities in the short time since the start of the year: Charlie Hebdo, the massacre in Nigeria, the ever-growing threat of so-called Islamic State, and persecution around the world. This book has served as a good reminder to keep looking out for the good in the world, especially when it threatens to be consumed by evil. 

Good stories such as this. This really shows some of the best of humanity:


New Year, New books, hooray!

So, I didn't blog at all in January. Fail on my part. And I haven't been reading as much. Double fail. I've managed to carve out time for writing, but since I'm of the opinion that I need to read more than I write, the balance is kind of askew.

There are many things I'm excited for this year in the world of literature. Personally, I am thoroughly enjoying revising my work-in-progress, 'The Dome'. I read an excellent article on the kinds of things that redrafts need to involve - when I first read it I could feel my heart sinking to the floor, but the more I reflected afterwards the more I felt ready to take on the challenge. I've changed tenses and I've been brutal with examining and experimenting with every sentence and phrase, spotting how the nuances have affected the tone.

Once that is completed, I'm planning on getting back to my new novel that I started writing in the Autumn of 2014. It's much darker than anything I've ever imagined, and the narration is inspired by Joanne Harris' "Blackberry Wine." It's definitely an experiment, and it'll be fun to take my time exploring that.

There are lots of books I'm looking forward to reading this year (though, sadly, The Winds of Winter is not going to be one :( George R. R. Martin, you're breaking out hearts!) including The Fire Sermon. I've read the teaser, I've read more than a few reviews, and it's going to be really interesting to read a book where disabilities and treatment of people with them is strongly examined. Francesca Haig is, no doubt, going to be heaped with plaudits.

I've just started reading The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss, and I've never examined a book so closely to try and figure out how exactly the author has made it so damned good (except, perhaps, The Eyes of the Dragon by Stephen King. My friend Jennie has to vet the Stephen King books I'm allowed to read, though...)

I also resolve to be on Wattpad a lot more, just because it seems like an amazing community of writers and I want to be a part of that. I also need to start experimenting again with free writing... it can be so easy to get bogged down in a first, second, third draft, and sometimes miss why I love writing - there's nothing like the feeling of creating your own worlds.

That's it for now, I guess... I've got some new reviews that need writing, after all!