Review: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

“Hey Alice, I’ve read this book and I think you may like it. It’s about a girl who keeps dying and coming back to li..”

“Good day.”

“No wait, it’s better than it sounds. She is meant for something big and each time she comes back she has a sort of memory of the life bef…”

“I said good day, sir!”

Hello, and welcome to my brain, hot house for assumptions and pre-judgement. That faux conversation is a verbal formation of the thought process I had when I first heard about Life After Life by Kate Atkinson. I was far from amused; the cover looked girly and I feel ‘meh’ about regeneration (Doctor Who’s lame regeneration loop hole has ruined me for life). Essentially I was judging something before I had read it, and I was wrong.

I won my copy of Life After Life from Elena at Books and Reviews, in one of her fantastic Feminist Sundays posts. Do check out her blog, it’s all sorts of wonderful.

Life After Life cover“On a cold and snowy night in 1910, Ursula Todd is born, the third child of a wealthy English banker and his wife. Sadly, she dies before she can draw her first breath. On that same cold and snowy night, Ursula Todd is born, lets out a lusty wail, and embarks upon a life that will be, to say the least, unusual. For as she grows, she also dies, repeatedly, in any number of ways. Clearly history (and Kate Atkinson) have plans for her: In Ursula rests nothing less than the fate of civilization.

Wildly inventive, darkly comic, startlingly poignant — this is Kate Atkinson at her absolute best, playing with time and history, telling a story that is breathtaking for both its audacity and its endless satisfactions.” Synopsis from GoodReads.

Get past the first two pages, which I literally eye-rolled at, and this is a gift that keeps on giving. Atkinson is very clever, each time I felt I was encountering a cliché or overused plot devise she did a u-turn.

Atkinson states the following at the end of my copy of Life After Life, “People always ask you what a book is ‘about’ and I generally make something up as I have no idea what a book is about (it’s ‘about itself), but if pressed, I think I would say Life After Life is about being English. […] Not just the reality of being English, but also what we are in our own imagination.” But, I don’t think Atkinson gives herself enough credit. You get the general feeling that Life After Life is telling you more about WWII than demonstrating the damage to the home front. Ursula, the protagonist, travels through many lives – remembering a shadow of each. Through these various slices in times you experience several sides of the characters and of war. Disappointments, death and sadness litter them all, and ultimately you find yourself hoping that the happy ending was the last.

While set over two world wars this is a novel less about physical destruction as it is about the impact war had on English (and German) people. I think it is easy to forget what an intense and life changing experience it is to live through a war. Two generations behind a world war survivor I have little knowledge of what it is to be scared on a daily basis. I am privileged beyond belief. As time skips back and forth in Life After Life, between 1910 and different periods of time and versions of Ursula’s life, each is a demonstration of how the smallest change can affect life drastically. How living through war makes you a totally different person to the people around you who only know peace.

The only criticism I have of Life After Life is that I found it around 150 pages too long, and got to a point near the end where I was very bored. Atkinson, I feel, goes through more versions of Ursula’s life that I was ready to absorb. I found Ursula’s lives in German the most irksome, her resolve to kill Hitler uninteresting. However, this is not how the novel ends, so I was saved from disliking the novel. That, and I longed for Ursula’s older brother to be more loving, and to be loved more. There is nothing more tragic than an emotionally distant ostracised child.

Life After Life is my second Atkinson novel (I have previously read one of the Jackson Brodie series), one that I am sure will set the way for me to read and enjoy more.

Review: Eastern Europe! by Tomek E. Jankowski

The most I knew about Eastern Europe before reading this book could be summarised in a description of the Eurovision Song Contest, which is embarrassing. I find history fascinating, but it was clear by education was dominated by western influence; without Eastern Europe there would be no Western Europe, so fill this knowledge gap I must!

cover35374-mediumEastern Europe! is a brief and concise (but informative) introduction to Eastern Europe and its myriad customs and history. Even those knowledgeable about Western Europe often see Eastern Europe as terra incognita, with a sign on the border declaring “Here be monsters.” This book is a gateway to understanding both what unites and separates Eastern Europeans from their Western brethren, and how this vital region has been shaped by, but has also left its mark on, Western Europe, Central Asia, the Middle East and North Africa. Ideal for students, businesspeople, and those who simply want to know more about where Grandma or Grandpa came from, Eastern Europe! is a user-friendly guide to a region that is all too often mischaracterized as remote, insular, and superstitious.

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Literary Acquisitions: September & October

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Physical Additions:

Yesterday, while traversing the town in which I live (which I don’t do very often) my friend and I found a wonderful little café. Nestled amongst the sofas was a bookshelf where you could read, borrow or buy books; all donations went to charity, how can I turn down an opportunity like that!?

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë – I have read Wuthering Heights before, one Christmas day a couple of years ago. As one of my favourite books I couldn’t pass up the chance of having a physical copy of it.

Forgotten Voices of the Great War by Max Arthur – I have a bit of a fascination with WW1 – especially after reading Parade’s End – so I picked this up without thinking about it. “In 1972 a team of academics and archivists from the Imperial War Museum set about the monumental task of tracing ordinary men and women who had lived through one of the most harrowing periods of modern history, The First World War. Veterans from Britain, Germany, America, Australia and Canada were interviewed in detail about their day-to-day experiences on and off the front.”

Aside from that I have been shopping at the great beast, Amazon. Not everyone’s favourite book buying location, but when you are limited on funds it’s the easiest place to go.

The Patrick Melrose series by Edward St Aubyn – I bought the first book, Never Mind, on my Kindle to see cheaply gage interest – I finished it in two days. Naturally I immediately had to buy the series and I’m fairly certain this will be up there in my favourites with Parade’s End by its completion. The novels – Never Mind, at least – have the same sort of writing style as my Lost Generation favourites. St Aubyn has a talent of being able to write a story where a great deal happens mentally; he is not reliant on a busy plot.

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Kindle Additions:

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn – at 99p I thought this was a bargain, however, I may be one of the few people who didn’t think much of it.

Kill Your Friends by John Niven – Purchased after my enjoyment of Straight White Male.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë – I’ve read both Charlotte and Emily’s (most famous) work, I feel it only right that I read a book by Anne. Oh, and it’s free.

Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë  – As above.

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen – It was free and I do need to read all of Austen’s novels, not just Persuasion, Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. I’ve been told it’s utter meta as well, so I want to read it for that.

The Mysteries of Udolpho – Free and referenced in Northanger Abbey.

Confessions of a Sociopath by M. E. Thomas – Out of curiosity – and from a rather interesting review – I decided to buy this book. It reminded me of reading The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson, although I imagine the two will be decidedly different.

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What are your latest acquisitions?