Life After Life – Kate Atkinson

life-after-life-“What if we had the chance to do it again and again, until we finally did get it right? Wouldn’t that be wonderful,” says Teddy to his big sister, Ursula, the unusual main character of Kate Atkinson’s even more unusual novel Life After Life.

Ursula is born  in February, 1910. She dies and is born again. And again. Attempting to piece these multiple lives into any sort of coherent order is damn near impossible so I suggest you don’t even try. It’s far easier to just be with Ursula as she is born, grows up and then grows up again, each time encountering different possibilities based on life’s many variables. The reader is dropped into Ursula’s life at different points, just as she seems to be. Ursula hits the ground running, and eventually – with a little bit of attention paid –  so does the reader.

Ursula is a fine character with which to spend your time. She was “born with winter already in her bones” and when winter comes around again she “recognized it from the first time around.” It is through her eyes we see her parents: her perfect and beloved father, Hugh and her slightly snippy mother, Sylvie. When she is born she already has two older siblings, Maurice and Pamela, and then her arrival is followed by Teddy and James. The siblings and their parents live at Fox Corner, an English estate. Her lives and deaths flow almost seamlessly together, darkness falls and she is no more until she is again – still with the same family, still Ursula.

I don’t pretend to understand the novel’s finer points (it would take at least another reading), but I can say this: Life After Life clocks in at almost 500 pages and it was a joy to read. Sometimes Ursula makes choices which are ultimately detrimental to her well-being. One bad decision tips the balance and causes her life to spin out of control.  It’s only human to wonder how things might have been different if only… Other times her life is better, but not perfect. People suffer and die. World War I and then II upset the status quo.

There is a part of Ursula’s conscious that recognizes that her life seems to be on repeat. Her mother tells her it’s déjà vu, “a trick of the mind.” Dr. Kellet introduces her to the word “reincarnation” when she is just ten. But explanations are not necessary for Ursula or the reader. And although not every version of her life is a joy to read about, each one is as compelling as the next. Perhaps Ursula knows instinctively that ” If there’s no great glorious end to all this, if nothing we do matters… , then all that matters is what we do. ‘Cause that’s all there is. What we do. Now. Today. ” (Thanks for that quote, Joss Whedon! From the Angel episode “Epiphany.”)

It might be interesting to consider that Atkinson is also playing with the notion of novelist as God. Of course a novelist really does have the opportunity to make anything they want to happen to their characters happen. They don’t however, under normal circumstances, make every scenario happen in the same novel. If this was an experiment for Atkinson, it paid off in spades. The writing is beautiful. Ursula is everything you’d want in a protagonist; the minor characters are compelling and each and every one of Ursula’s lives offers something of value to careful readers.

Highly recommended.

The Ice Cream Girls – Dorothy Koomson

icecreamTold in the alternating voices of Serena and Poppy, The Ice Cream Girls, by British writer Dorothy Koomson, is part suspense novel and part family drama. Koomson expertly weaves the story of two teenaged girls accused of murdering their history teacher, Marcus  Halnsley. They’re called ‘the ice cream girls’ because of a photograph of the pair wearing bikinis and eating ice cream. Their story, and their relationship with Halnsley,  is anything but sweet, though.

We meet Serena at the moment when her husband, Evan, proposes to her for the second time. We meet Poppy as she leaves prison, where she has been incarcerated for the past twenty years. These are two women, one black and one white, who might have never met if it hadn’t been for Halnsley.

We meet him through Serena first who says that “all the girls said he should be a film star because he was good-looking.” Serena doesn’t really like him at first because he was “always picking on me.” But when Mr. Halnsley starts to take a special interest in her, Serena feels singled out and special. Halnsley convinces her she could excel at History and offers to give her private lessons. It isn’t long before he crosses the line. It’s a simple (although inappropriate gesture) at first, but it’s easy to see how easily Halnsley manipulates fifteen-year-old Serena.

I walked home instead of getting the bus and along the way, I kept reaching up to touch my face. His touch had been so gentle and soft. And the way he said he wanted to take care of me made my stomach tingle upside down every time I ran it through in my head. He wanted to take care of me. That must mean I was special. Someone as clever and grown-up as him thought I was special.

Just a few short weeks after Halnsley has convinced Serena that he loves her, he meets Poppy. It’s clear, of course, that he’s a predator and that both Serena and Poppy are vulnerable despite the fact that they come from decent families. For the next couple of years the girls share the man who alternately abuses them and plays them off against each other – all the while convincing them that he loves them.

The story requires some finesse and Koomson does a terrific job of layering all the bits together. There’s a lot the reader wants to know. Why did Poppy go to prison, for example, and not Serena? Serena went on to college, met and married Evan (a doctor) and now lives in suburban bliss with her two children. Of course, behind the scenes she’s a hot mess. Every night before bed she has to hide all the knives.

The dinner knives are safe but the sharp ones, the ones that can do serious damage, seem to be missing in action. Admittedly, that’s my fault: I hid them last night, and I can’t quite remember where.

Things aren’t much better for adult Poppy, either. She arrives home to her parents only to discover that her father isn’t speaking to her, can’t even look at her and her mother

managed to sit down at the same table as me for more than three seconds. She didn’t make herself a cup of tea, so I knew she wasn’t staying, but it was a start. She actually came into the kitchen and didn’t immediately walk out again.

Poppy is intent on finding Serena and getting her to admit that she is actually responsible for Halnsley’s death and while their reluctant reunion dredges up all sorts of bad memories, it also allows the women to finally have a chance at exorcising the ghost of Halnsley, a man whose hold on them has poisoned their lives long after his death.

Great book.

 

 

 

 

My Ideal Bookshelf – Thessaly La Force & Jane Mount

myidealbookshelf1_grande My son gave My Ideal Bookshelf to me for my birthday back in May.  It’s one of those books that is both a pleasure to read and a pleasure to look at. The premise was to ask 100 plus people (writers, designers, chefs, artists, photographers) about their ideal bookshelf.  In other words:

Select a small shelf of books that represent you – the books that have changed your life, that have made you who you are today, your favourite favourites. You begin, perhaps, by walking over to your bookshelf and skimming the spines on the top shelf. You pull down a handful that you remember loving; you grab a couple that you read over and over again. Some you know just by the colour of their dust jackets. One is in tatters – it was passed down by your mother – and it’s dog-eared and carefully held together by tape and tenderness. The closer you look, the trickier the task turns out to be.

You got that right. But before I talk about what I did with My Ideal Bookshelf let me just point out how much fun this book was to read. Although I don’t know everyone whose bookshelves were included, it didn’t matter. If you are a book lover, you are naturally drawn to other people’s bookshelves. You know it’s true. If I am in someone’s house, their bookshelves take precedence over anything else. I must snoop. It’s futile to resist the siren call of the books.

I read My Ideal Bookshelf cover-to-cover. Each person’s shelf is artistically recreated by Jane Mount. For example, this is Stephanie Meyer’s shelf:

meyer

Each shelf is accompanied by a personal reflection. Meyer offers this insight into her choices:

These books contain threads of what I like to write about: the way people interact, how we relate to one another when life is beautiful and horrible. But these books are greater than anything I could ever aspire to create.

None of the commentaries explain the person’s entire collection, but each  offers a glimpse into that person’s reading life.  For example, book designer Coralie Bickford-Smith says “The written word means so much to me. If I design a cover that gets people to pick up a book, then I’ve done my job. I want the younger generation to fall in love with books like Jane Eyre again.”  Interior designer Tom Delavan offers this: “Books are the very best kind of decoration, really. There are two types of books, the ones you read and the ones you have on your coffee table. Both make a space feel like home – you spend time with them, they have meaning for you, and they actually look good, too.” Writer Dave Eggers says “These are the books that crushed me, changed me when I first read them, and to which I have returned many times since, always finding more in them.”

Book lovers always have something to talk about. Always. My Ideal Bookshelf is like a beautiful conversation. With pictures.

I liked the book so much that I thought it would be really cool to ask my students to build their own ideal bookshelves and then write an essay to talk about their reading lives.  There’s a handy template at the back of the book (and it’s also available on their blog). As the school year winds down, this is a great way to have students reflect on the books they’re read – not only during their time with me, but for as long as they’ve been reading. We just got started on Friday, but it was so much fun to walk around and see what had made students’ lists. (When I saw that my Turkish exchange student had Donna Tartt’s The Secret History on her list – we both shared a moment of squealing delight.)

I wanted to take up the challenge, too. I’m going to cheat, though, and do a YA bookshelf and another bookshelf – although there may be some cross-over titles. I am no artist, but here’s what I came up with.

idealbookshelfya

It wasn’t easy to come up with these titles…and I left off a dozen more…so I am looking at this like it’s a snapshot of my YA reading life…including both books that I  read when I was a teenager and younger  (Jane Eyre, A Little Princess, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, That Was Then, This Is Now and Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl all fall into that category. I read them between 35-40 years ago!) and more recent reads. The thing they all have in common is that I loved them and the characters that inhabit the pages have stuck with me.

My Ideal Bookshelf would make an excellent gift for any book lovers on your list.

I’d love to hear about your ideal bookshelf!

The Raft – S. A. Bodeen

raft Robie, the fifteen-year-old protagonist of S.A. Bodeen’s YA novel The Raft has been back and forth between Hawaii and the island of Midway dozens of times. She lives there with her research scientists parents, but when the novel opens she’s visiting her aunt in Honolulu. When her aunt is unexpectedly called to work on the mainland, Robie isn’t bothered about being alone. She’s used to it and knows how to look after herself.

Looking after yourself on 2.4 sqaure miles of island, as it turns out, is different from looking after yourself in downtown Honolulu. Unfortunately Robie gets accosted on the street one evening – nothing serious – but it spooks her and she decides to take the cargo plane home. Unfortunately phone and Internet service is spotty on the island and so Robie isn’t able to let her parents know she is coming home. Even more unexpectedly, the plane hits bad weather and goes down. Only Robie and the co-pilot, Max, survive.

This novel is terrific. Like, couldn’t-put-it-down terrific. Robie is resilient and smart and is able to cope with her circumstances better than people twice her age. The raft she floats in leaks, there are sharks in the water – and not much else. It’s impossible to imagine that Robie will make it, but she does.

I don’t want to say too much about the things Robie endures. Once you start reading The Raft you’ll find out pretty quickly because you won’t be able to stop turning the pages. I should also mention that Bodeen slips some compelling stuff about ocean and bird life, conservation and pollution into the mix and it all feels necessary and organic. Robie is at home in this environment and knows “more about ocean fish and seabirds than most post-graduate researchers.” It’s a good thing, too.

Bodeen’s prose is straightforward and Robie’s voice is authentic. In a moment of prescience she remarks: “Lately it seemed there were a lot more days when my life felt less  like luck and way more like suck.”

I’m not one for survival stories, really, but I enjoyed Robie’s tremendously.

Highly recommended.

 

 

 

The Rosie Project – Graeme Simsion

rosieIt’s easy to see why Graeme Simsion’s debut novel The Rosie Project was such a huge hit with readers all over the world. It’s one of those books with easy to like characters, a straightforward story and just enough quirk to make it stand out from the pack.

Don Tillman is a scientist in the Genetics department at an unnamed university in Melbourne, Australia. It’s clear from the book’s opening pages that while Don clearly has a super-sized brain, he also has some issues which have prevented him, thus far, from finding a suitable partner. Thus, the Wife Project.

Don’s two friends Gene and Claudia try to help with Don’s project, but Don felt their assistance was lacking. Their approach “was based on the traditional dating paradigm, which I had previously abandoned on the basis that the probability of success did not justify the effort and negative experiences.”  He eventually writes a sixteen-page questionnaire that he hopes will sort the wheat from the chaff.

Don describes everyone he meets by telling us their Body Mass Index and by the time he tells us that he is “thirty-nine years old, tall, fit and intelligent, with a relatively high status and above-average income” and that he should be “attractive to a wide variety of women. In the animal kingdom, I would succeed in reproducing” we know for sure that Don is somewhere on the Autism spectrum.

According to Autism Canada

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a complex neurobiological condition that can affect the normal function of the gastrointestinal, immune, hepatic, endocrine and nervous systems. It impacts normal brain development leaving most individuals with communication problems, difficulty with typical social interactions and a tendency to repeat specific patterns of behaviour. There is also a markedly restricted repertoire of activity and interests. Individuals on the autism spectrum tend to have varying degrees and combinations of symptoms

All things considered, Don does pretty well in the world. Where he struggles is with human interaction. So when Rosie blows into his life, ostensibly looking for someone to help her discover the identity of her biological father, Don’s ordered world is thrown completely off-kilter. That’s when the fun really starts.

There are several laugh-out-loud moments in The Rosie Project, and it is fun to watch socially challenged Don and prickly Rosie work their way towards each other. It’ll make a great movie.

 

The Worst Thing She Ever Did – Alice Kuipers

worstthing Sophie releases the details of the worst thing she ever did through journal entries and this turns out to be a blessing and a curse in Alice Kuiper’s second YA novel, The Worst Thing She Ever Did. It’s a blessing because we get to hear Sophie’s authentic teenage voice and a curse for the same reason. Teenagers are, by definition, insular and of course no where is this made more apparent than in the pages of a teenager’s diary.

Sophie is keeping this journal at the request of her therapist, Lynda, who tells her that “Writing in here will help you remember.” Sophie doesn’t want to remember, though, and The Worst Thing She Ever Did  takes its own sweet time revealing what it is Sophie is so desperately trying to forget. I’m not suggesting that Sophie’s tragedy is not worth the effort, just that Sophie often teeters on the edge of coming across more like a petulant child than the survivor of a horrific act of violence.

But maybe that is part of what would make this story so compelling to young adults. I think they will recognize themselves in the pages of Kuiper’s novel. Here is a girl who is living her life. Her sister, Emily, is home from art school and Sophie doesn’t varnish their sibling relationship. Sometimes Emily really pisses her off. Sometimes Sophie feels like Emily is the favourite child. Mostly though, Sophie misses her older sister and it is clear that something horrible and unspeakable has happened.

Sophie’s mother is coping with the loss as badly as Sophie is, but the two of them don’t talk about it. In fact, sometimes they “circled each other like cats.” Sophie pretends not to hear her mother crying. There is no joy in the house they share.

There’s no joy for Sophie at school, either. Everything is different. “Everything going on around me – the others, the noise, the ring of the bell to get to class – was so loud it gave me a headache.” Sophie’s best friend, Abigail, has moved on.  Sophie tries to navigate the aftermath of the tragedy (which is only alluded to until almost the end of the novel) and work her way through being a teenager with varying degrees of success. There’s school to contend with and fractured friendships and boys – one boy in particular – and her mother. All of these elements would have been enough for a YA novel and a half, but Kuipers ups the ante here.

If some of the reconciliations seem a tad trite at the novel’s end (I wasn’t really fussy about the subplot concerning Abigail), they don’t really detract from the story’s larger theme: healing takes time. Kuiper’s is a lovely writer and although my feelings about The Worst Thing She Ever Did are similar to my feelings about 40 Things I Want To Tell You, I still think Kuipers is worth checking out.

 

If I Lie – Corrine Jackson

ifilieQuinn, Carey and Blake, the teenagers at the centre of Corrine Jackson’s debut novel If I Lie, seem ill-equipped to deal with the troubles life throws at them. Childhood friends, things begin to unravel in their senior year when Carey and Quinn break up (briefly)  and Quinn discovers she has feelings for Blake. All of this is complicated by the fact that they live in a military town and Carey has enlisted. When the novel opens, the story has already been set in motion and Carey is MIA. Quinn has been shunned by everyone, including her Lieutenant Colonel father because while she and Blake were sharing a private moment under the bleachers, someone snapped a picture and posted it on Facebook. Even though no one knew who the guy was, everyone knew Quinn was the girl.

If it seems complicated – it is. But, then, isn’t high school a complicated time? A time where you often like people who don’t like you back. A time where all your feelings sit like little bombs around your heart, ready to go off any second. A time where friendships splinter over silly things. A time of secrets. And Quinn is carrying around a big secret – one she promised she wouldn’t tell and although it makes her a target she sticks to her word.

If I Lie has a lot going for it – perhaps a little too much. Not only do we have what is happening between Carey, Quinn and Blake – but we also have Quinn’s complicated relationship with her father. Her mother left when Quinn was eleven. Well, she more than left actually; she ran off with her father’s brother – never to be heard from again. Until she shows up. There’s also Quinn’s relationship with George, a veteran she has been charged by her father to help; a punishment that turns out to benefit Quinn in ways too numerous to mention. Really, I think, Jackson was offering up a little lesson about war veterans here and I don’t mean to imply that it’s not a lesson worth learning. It just seemed one more element in an already overstuffed story.

Quinn’s voice is compelling, though. And I liked how the novel navigated her feelings for all the people in her life, without offering up any trite answers. Because if there’s one thing you learn in high school it’s that you don’t have all the answers and that relationships are complicated and the people you care about are worth fighting for.

Breathless – Jessica Warman

breathlessA few months back I read Jessica Warman’s novel, Between, and although I didn’t love it straight off it definitely grew on me. A student in my writing class saw Breathless on my bookshelf and told me that I had to read it next. All I can say is that I kept reading for her because there’s really nothing to recommend this book.

Breathless was written when Warman herself was just out of high school and sadly, that’s how it reads. The novel is apparently semi-autobiographical and tells the story of Katie Kitrell, a fifteen-year-old championship swimmer with an alcoholic mother, workaholic father and psychopathic older brother.  When her brother, Will, goes off the deep end again, Katie’s parents make the decision to send her off to boarding school. Breathless ends up cramming every possible teenage trope into its 331 pages: friendship, drinking, religion, sex, drugs, wealth, first love, jealousy, mean girls and damaged girls etc etc.

The characterization is all over the place, too. At the beginning of the novel Katie seems to almost idolize her brother. They spend hours on the roof of their house smoking and talking, but Katie can always sense “his emotional axis shifting a little, off-kilter. It’s something I’ve come to call privately the kaleidoscope pf crazy- shimmering and beautiful in certain lights, paisley and horrifying in others.”

Her parents seem unable to cope. Her father, a doctor, just works more and her mother paints and drinks. In no way is Katie’s family functional.

Once she goes off to school the focus shifts away from her family and we are forced to endure 1) the bitchy pretty girl with whom everyone wants to be friends and her 2) nice but kowtowing friend and 3) Katie’s MIA roommate who suddenly shows up but barely says a word and 4) the most perfect boy in the world who just happens to fall in love with Katie.

Nothing happens, though. This is a coming-of-age story and there are some lovely moments here (it’s clear that Warman has talent) but Breathless  is in desperate need of an editor. It’s biceps not bicep and the glaring error in this sentence almost made me shut the book for good “…all of our hands, white gloves pulled taught  and flawless over out fingers-” Who is editing books these days anyway?

Warman clearly had a story to tell and even at a young age, she had the ability to tell it, but the novel’s uneven characterization and bloodless plot made this a miss for me.

Good People – Ewart Hutton

goodpeopleD.S. Glyn Capaldi, the protagonist of Ewart Hutton’s debut Good People, is a Welsh cop who got into a bit of trouble in Cardiff and had been reassigned to a dinky town in the middle of nowhere, a place where the higher-ups figure he can’t get into any more touble.

The reader doesn’t get to learn very much about Capaldi. He’s divorced. He’s smart. He’s got good instincts, but isn’t really a team player and he’s very much an outsider in Carmarthen. Detective Chief Superintendent Galbraith describes him as ” someone who used to be a good cop,” which is why Galbraith has rescued him so he isn’t “wearing a rinky-dink security uniform and patrolling the booze aisle in some shanty-town supermarket.” Capaldi is getting another chance, but he’s on a short leash.

Which is why no one wants to give him the time of day when Capaldi is suspicious about Carmarthen’s latest crime. Six men coming home from a soccer game in England, disappear into the woods with a young girl. Their abandoned mini-bus is found on the side of the road, but hours later when the party is found, not everyone is accounted for.

Police who are familiar with the men believe their story – convoluted as it is – but Capaldi isn’t as convinced.

Good People is a relatively straightforward mystery that is fast-paced and intriguing. Capaldi certainly grows on you and the story is not your standard whodunit. Instead, Good People is about  the underbelly of a town that, on the surface at least, seems quaint and shiny and  our capacity for deception.

12 Years A Slave – Solomon Northrup

12 years I can’t say that I was thrilled when 12 Years a Slave, Solomon Northrup’s true-life account of slavery, was chosen for book club. I haven’t seen the much-lauded film because I’ve heard it’s quite violent and my tolerance for violence seems to be on the decline these days and I didn’t really have any desire to read this book either. I understand its importance but, truthfully, this isn’t a book that I’d ever pick up.

“Having been born a free man,” Northrup writes, and having “been kidnapped and sold into slavery, where I remained, until happily rescued in the month of January, 1853, after a bondage of twelve years – it has been suggested that an account of my life and fortunes would not be uninteresting to the public.”

Northrup intends to offer up “a candid and truthful statement of the facts: to repeat the story of my life, without exaggeration, leaving it for others to determine, whether even the pages of fiction present a picture of more cruel wrong or severer bondage.”

And factual it is – which I think might be part of the problem.

My first and most powerful experience with the subject of slavery came in 1977. I was in high school and there was a television event known as Roots. This mini-series was really must watch television and it had a profound impact on me. The story, based on the life of author Alex Haley’s grandmother, was shocking and horrific to me – a middle-class white girl from Eastern Canada. My experience with people of African-American descent was really limited; I could count the number of black kids at my school on one hand. I distinctly remember watching Roots and being ashamed of the colour of my skin. I still remember the characters Kunta Kinte and Chicken George. Such is the power of fiction.

Northrup is married with three small children when he is duped by a couple of white men and taken from his life in New York to a plantation in Louisiana.  His account of the  journey and his time spent as a slave is  – I don’t know – instructive. Once in New Orleans he is purchased by a relatively kind man, William Ford. Northrup describes him as “kind, noble, candid, Christian.”

The influences and associations that had always surrounded him, blinded him to the inherent wrong at the bottom of the system of slavery. He never doubted the moral right of one man holding another in subjection. Looking through the same medium with his fathers before him, he saw things in the same light. Brought up under other circumstances and other influences, his notions would undoubtedly have been different. Nevertheless, he was a model master…

Unfortunately, he is sold again to a less charitable master, Mr. Epps, a man whose manners are “repulsive and coarse.” When drinking, Epps’ chief delight was “dancing with his “niggers,” or lashing them about the yard with his long whip, just for the pleasure of hearing them screech and scream.” It is with Epps that Northrup spends the bulk of his incarceration. 12 years_a

Perhaps modern readers have been spoiled by today’s memoirs, which often read like fiction. Northrup’s motivation for writing this book was, I believe, to instruct – and while I understand the merits of his tale, I felt it was missing a key ingredient: character. Yes, Northrup was clearly a good, intelligent, brave man, but there was something distancing about the very formal language of this tale. I think in his effort to report the facts, the story loses some of its impact. For example, when Eliza (someone else who has been kidnapped) is separated from her young children Northrup remarks “never have I seen such an exhibition of intense, unmeasured, and unbounded grief.” Imagine how that scene might have played out in fiction.

I am not sorry that I read Northrup’s story, but is it great literature? Is it a book I would press into the hands of my friends and say “you’ve got to read this.” No.