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‘Life After Life’ by Kate Atkinson ****

Life After Life is one of the most recent novels from one of Britain’s finest contemporary authors, Kate Atkinson. Here, Atkinson has used ‘the most turbulent events of the 20th century’ as her backdrop, and has proffered the question: ‘what if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right?’ Interesting foundations abound, and the story which she has crafted certainly builds upon this creativity.

9780552779685The beginning of the book takes November 1930 as its setting, but that is by no means the beginning of the story. The structure is such that it flits between one time period and the next, bobbing into the past and hurtling into the future from one chapter to another. In the first vignette, Ursula Todd, the heroine of the novel, finds herself in a café with Adolf Hitler: ‘He loved his cakes’, our omniscient narrator muses. ‘No wonder he looked so pasty, she was surprised he wasn’t diabetic. The softly repellent body (she imagined pastry) beneath the clothes, never exposed to public view’. Armed with an old pistol, Ursula shoots him. Here the vignette ends.

The second sketch takes us back to rather a domestic scene in February 1910, where a baby girl, our very own Ursula Todd, is born blue, ‘strangled’ by her umbilical cord, ‘the poor wee thing’. In the third vignette which follows, the very same baby is ‘bonny’ and ‘bouncing’, and full of life. Ursula is the third daughter of a young married couple, Hugh and Sylvie Todd, who already have two children. When meeting his baby sister for the first time, the eldest son, Maurice, ‘gloomily’ utters ‘Another girl’, showing the start of his childish distaste for everything around him. The story whirls through Ursula’s childhood, allowing us to see the best and worst consequences of the First and Second World Wars, and the impact which such events had on one family, the endearing and wholly likeable Todds.

A rather playful structure has been used throughout Life After Life. There are eleven sections entitled ‘Snow’, five called ‘Armistice’, and three which fall under the optimistic heading of ‘A Lovely Day Tomorrow’. The novel is set on rather a repetitive cycle, wherein the same days and events are played over and over again. Somehow, rather than making this monotonous, such repetitions never seem stolid or overly similar. The author brings new details to light in each chapter, building up her characters all the while. Others are introduced merely in order to avert crises – a fellow painting on the beach who heroically wades into the Cornwall sea to rescue Ursula and her elder sister Pamela when they are washed out of their depth whilst on holiday, for example. Strands of the story are woven through each section and are picked up like dropped stitches every once in a while.

Throughout Life After Life, Atkinson’s wit shines. When Sylvie Todd is musing about the death of her father, the following statement is uttered by the third person narrator: ‘He had just begun a portrait of the Earl of Balfour. Never finished. Obviously’. When talking about her neighbours, too, Sylvie’s naivety is rather touching in the most amusing way: ‘“Jewish,” Sylvie said in the same voice as she would use for “Catholic” – intrigued yet unsettled by such exoticism’.

Life After Life is an historical novel of the most contemporary kind, and its rather unique structure has clearly been deftly plotted. The entire novel is crammed with the wit, humour and compassion for her characters which is evident in every single one of her books to date. Atkinson captures each period which she writes about wonderfully, and she also weaves in the seemingly distant pasts of Hugh and Sylvie. Life After Life is certainly a strong and absorbing novel, and it is one which will surely not disappoint even the most reluctant reader of historical fiction.

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Getting Into Crime Fiction

Crime fiction – particularly of the contemporary period – was a genre which I oddly found myself steering away from in my teenage years, but of late, I have been veering more and more toward it.  I love a good mystery, and whilst I have always been a fan of cosy crime, I am now drawn to more recent releases.  For those of you who don’t classify crime fiction as within your favourite literary genres, I thought it would be a good idea to point out five crime books which I would highly recommend, giving you a springboard from which to dive into some exciting books.

  1. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie (Flavia de Luce series #1) by Alan Bradley 9780752883212
    ‘Take one precocious eleven-year-old girl called Flavia. Add an ancient country house somewhere in England in 1950. Then sprinkle with murder, mystery and dark family secrets…For very nearly eleven-year-old Flavia de Luce, the discovery of a dead snipe on the doorstep of Buckshaw, the crumbling de Luce country seat, was a marvellous mystery – especially since this particular snipe had a rather rare stamp neatly impaled on its beak. Even more astonishing was the effect of the dead bird on her stamp-collector father, who appeared to be genuinely frightened. Soon Flavia discovers something even more shocking in the cucumber patch, and it’s clear that the snipe was a bird of very ill omen indeed. As the police descend on Buckshaw, Flavia decides it is up to her to piece together the clues and solve the puzzle. Who was the man she heard her father arguing with? What was the snipe doing in England at all? Who or what is the Ulster Avenger? And, most peculiar of all, who took a slice of Mrs Mullet’s unspeakable custard pie that had been cooling by the window…?’
  2. The Secret Adversary (Tommy and Tuppence, #1) by Agatha Christie
    ‘Tommy and Tuppence, two young people short of money and restless for excitement, embark on a daring business scheme – Young Adventurers Ltd. Their advertisement says they are ‘willing to do anything, go anywhere’. But their first assignment, for the sinister Mr Whittington, plunges them into more danger than they ever imagined…’
  3. 9780008124120The Moving Toyshop (Gervase Fen Mysteries) by Edmund Crispin
    ‘As inventive as Agatha Christie, as hilarious as P.G. Wodehouse – discover the delightful detective stories of Edmund Crispin. Crime fiction at its quirkiest and best. Richard Cadogan, poet and would-be bon vivant, arrives for what he thinks will be a relaxing holiday in the city of dreaming spires. Late one night, however, he discovers the dead body of an elderly woman lying in a toyshop and is coshed on the head. When he comes to, he finds that the toyshop has disappeared and been replaced with a grocery store. The police are understandably skeptical of this tale but Richard’s former schoolmate, Gervase Fen (Oxford professor and amateur detective), knows that truth is stranger than fiction (in fiction, at least). Soon the intrepid duo are careening around town in hot pursuit of clues but just when they think they understand what has happened, the disappearing-toyshop mystery takes a sharp turn…Erudite, eccentric and entirely delightful – Before Morse, Oxford’s murders were solved by Gervase Fen, the most unpredictable detective in classic crime fiction.’
  4. In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware
    ‘Nora hasn’t seen Clare for ten years. Not since the day Nora walked out of her old life and never looked back. Until, out of the blue, an invitation to Clare’s hen party arrives. A weekend in a remote cottage – the perfect opportunity for Nora to reconnect with her best friend, to put the past behind her. But something goes wrong. Very wrong. And as secrets and lies unravel, out in the dark, dark wood the past will finally catch up with Nora.’
  5. Case Histories (Jackson Brodie, #1) by Kate Atkinson 9780552772433
    ‘Cambridge is sweltering, during an unusually hot summer. To Jackson Brodie, former police inspector turned private investigator, the world consists of one accounting sheet – Lost on the left, Found on the right – and the two never seem to balance. Jackson has never felt at home in Cambridge, and has a failed marriage to prove it. Surrounded by death, intrigue and misfortune, his own life haunted by a family tragedy, he attempts to unravel three disparate case histories and begins to realise that in spite of apparent diversity, everything is connected…’

 

Which are your favourite crime books?  Which would you recommend to someone just starting out with the genre?

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Short Story Series: Part Five

I adore reading short stories, and don’t see many reviews of collections on blogs in comparison to novels and the like. I thought that I would make a weekly series to showcase short stories, and point interested readers in the direction of some of my favourite collections. Rather than ramble in adoration for every single book, I have decided to copy their official blurb. I have linked my blog reviews where appropriate.

1. The Birds by Daphne du Maurier
‘A classic of alienation and horror, ‘The Birds’ was immortalised by Hitchcock in his celebrated film. The five other chilling stories in this collection echo a sense of dislocation and mock man’s sense of dominance over the natural world. The mountain paradise of ‘Monte Verita’ promises immortality, but at a terrible price; a neglected wife haunts her husband in the form of an apple tree; a professional photographer steps out from behind the camera and into his subject’s life; a date with a cinema usherette leads to a walk in the cemetery; and a jealous father finds a remedy when three’s a crowd …’

2. Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman
‘Tenderly, observantly, incisively, Edith Pearlman captures life on the page like few other writers. She is a master of the short story, and this is a spectacular collection.’

3. Lying Under the Apple Tree by Alice Munro
‘Spanning her last five collections and bringing together her finest work from the past fifteen years, this new selection of Alice Munro’s stories infuses everyday lives with a wealth of nuance and insight. Beautifully observed and remarkably crafted, written with emotion and empathy, these stories are nothing short of perfection. It is a masterclass in the genre, from an author who deservedly lays claim to being one of the major fiction writers of our time.’

My review can be found here.

4. Delicate Edible Birds and Other Stories by Lauren Groff
‘”Delicate Edible Birds” includes nine stories of vastly different styles and structures. “L. De Bard and Aliette” recreates the tale of Abelard and Heloise in New York during the 1918 flu epidemic; “Lucky Chow Fun” returns to Templeton, the setting of Groff’s debut novel, for a contemporary account of what happens to outsiders in a small, insular town; the title story of “Delicate Edible Birds” is a harrowing, powerfully moving drama about a group of war correspondents, a lone woman among them, who fall prey to a frightening man in the French countryside while fleeing the Nazis. With a dazzling array of voices and settings, “Delicate Edible Birds” will cement Lauren Groff’s reputation as one of the foremost talents of her generation.’

5. Under a Glass Bell by Anais Nin
‘”Under a Glass Bell” is one of Nin’s finest collections of stories. First published in 1944, it attracted the attention of Edmond Wilson, who reviewed the collection in “The New Yorker.” It was in these stories that Nin’s artistic and emotional vision took shape. This edition includes a highly informative and insightful foreword by Gunther Stuhlmann that places the collection in its historical context as well as illuminates the sequence of events and persons recorded in the diary that served as its inspiration.’

6. Selected Short Stories by Virginia Woolf
‘Virginia Woolf tested the boundaries of fiction in these short stories, developing a new language of sensation, feeling and thought, and recreating in words the ‘swarm and confusion of life’. Defying categorization, the stories range from the more traditional narrative style of “Solid Objects” through the fragile impressionism of “Kew Gardens” to the abstract exploration of consciousness in “The Mark on the Wall”.’

7. Not the End of the World by Kate Atkinson
‘What is the real world? Does it exist, or is it merely a means of keeping another reality at bay? Not the End of the World is Kate Atkinson’s first collection of short stories. Playful and profound, they explore the world we think we know whilst offering a vision of another world which lurks just beneath the surface of our consciousness, a world where the myths we have banished from our lives are startlingly present and where imagination has the power to transform reality. From Charlene and Trudi, obsessively making lists while bombs explode softly in the streets outside, to gormless Eddie, maniacal cataloguer of fish, and Meredith Zane who may just have discovered the secret to eternal life, each of these stories shows that when the worlds of material existence and imagination collide, anything is possible.’

8. Selected Short Stories by Honore de Balzac
‘One of the greatest French novelists, Balzac was also an accomplished writer of shorter fiction. This volume includes twelve of his finest short stories many of which feature characters from his epic series of novels the Comedie Humaine. Compelling tales of acute social and psychological insight, they fully demonstrate the mastery of suspense and revelation that were the hallmarks of Balzac’s genius. In The Atheist’s Mass, we learn the true reason for a distinguished atheist surgeon’s attendance at religious services; La Grande Breteche describes the horrific truth behind the locked doors of a decaying country mansion, while The Red Inn relates a brutal tale of murder and betrayal. A fascinating counterpoint to the renowned novels, all the stories collected here stand by themselves as mesmerizing works by one of the finest writers of nineteenth-century France.’

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Sunday Snapshot: Short Story Collections

Not the End of the World by Kate Atkinson
As far as contemporary authors go, Kate Atkinson is among my favourites. My re-reading of Not the End of the World has confirmed that she is one of a kind – witty, humorous, imaginative and sympathetic towards her cast of characters. I loved this short story collection, I really did. Atkinson’s writing is sublime and I love the many twists and turns her tales take. She is a true master of her craft.

The Birds and Other Stories by Daphne du Maurier
Daphne du Maurier is such a wonderful storyteller. I absolutely loved the majority of the stories in this collection, and her writing was exemplary throughout. Each story was clever and contained a great twist, along with a distinctive narrator. I found the last story a little weak in comparison to the rest of the collection though, which was a shame.

Johnny Panic and The Bible of Dreams by Sylvia Plath
I am absolutely in awe of Plath’s writing. Her prose is beautiful and incredibly startling in . I loved the mixture of short stories and essays throughout. My favourite stories were ‘Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams’, ‘The Fifty-Ninth Bear’, ‘Mothers’, ‘Ocean 1212-W’, the diary extracts, ‘Tongues of Stone’, and ‘Stone Boy with Dolphin’. The book was absolutely wonderful and I’m so glad I’ve read it.

A Curtain of Green and Other Stories by Eudora Welty
Thoughts about the book:
– I love the sense of place which Welty crafts. She paints such a vivid picture of Southern towns in my mind, and her descriptions of the natural world are so well done that they become stunning photographs.
– I admire Welty’s use of different literary techniques, styles and narrative voices.
– I love the comparisons which she makes between humans and creatures throughout.
– There are some great differences between individual tales in this collection. Some I loved, but others I know I won’t revisit through choice. In this respect, the collection is quite an uneven one.
– I like how she wove in the differing roles and expectations held for men and women in society.

Thoughts about ‘Why I Live at the P.O.:
– I really liked the narrative style, and the way that so many surprised exclamations were woven in.
– I found all of the characters intriguing.
– I liked the way in which she presented the family dynamic.
– I really disliked the fact that everyone looked down at and judged Sister, deeming Stella-Rondo far more worthy of their love and attention. The disparity between the siblings was so well drawn. I must admit that I was firmly on Sister’s side throughout.

Favourite stories:
‘Lily Daw and the Three Ladies’, ‘Why I Live at the P.O.’, ‘The Whistle’, ‘A Memory’ (a beautiful story), ‘Clytie’ and ‘Flowers for Marjorie’.

The Schoolmistress and Other Stories by Anton Chekhov
From the first page, I admired Chekhov’s writing greatly. His phrasing is glorious, and his descriptions beautiful. Throughout, the sense of place is built up marvellously. I love the disparities between each of the tales, and can certainly see why Katherine Mansfield so adored him. As psychological studies, these stories are so insightful, and it is clear that Chekhov knows his characters inside out.