22

That Time I Channelled Bradley Cooper

Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Penguin Random House of Canada in exchange for an honest review.

Reading Life After Life was like a religious experience for me. At the time it was magical, original and incredibly beautiful. I fell in love with Ursula Todd and Fox Corner.

So when I heard that Atkinson was writing a follow up novel, A God in Ruins, I was excited.

Despite the fact that in the interim I have tried to read a number of her other books and hated every single one of them. It’s been an incredible source of frustration for me because a) other people seem to love her other books so what’s wrong with me? And b) technically her books are exquisite. It’s rare for me to read books that are so well written and still hate them. But I do. My biggest gripe always seems to be that nothing good ever happens to redeem all the sh*t that she makes her characters go through.

But I digress.

In A God in Ruins, Atkinson attempts to tell the story of Teddy, Ursula’s younger brother. Except that this time there’s no wonderful do-over aspect. Teddy just lives his life while Atkinson tells it by jumping all over the damn place. Teddy’s experience in the war as an RAF pilot (sections that really could have been something and still bored me); Teddy as an old man, forced to move into seniors’ housing by his daughter Viola; Viola’s experiences as a young wife and mother, and later as a successful novelist; Teddy looking after his grandchildren, Bertie and Sunny, when his daughter is off doing her own thing; Teddy’s wife Nancy, grappling with her own mortality.

The whole time reading A God in Ruins felt like a chore. I was working so hard to get to something, anything that connected me back to the world I loved in Life After Life. Even Ursula herself makes few appearances, limited to short visits and snippets Teddy remembers from letters she’s written. When it became clear that Ursula and Fox Corner weren’t going to be a part of this new story, I focused on finding something to connect with in this story. .Aside from Teddy (and Bertie and occasionally poor Sunny) these characters are horrible. Viola, Nancy and Sunny are all (mostly) selfish. I still can’t think of a single redeeming thing about them.

And then the ending. Normally I’m all about the redemptive power of a solid ending. But this ending made me want to throw the book across the room. After slogging through 360 some odd pages suddenly Atkinson throws in this curveball that’s supposed to make you go “whoa.”

A different 4-letter word comes to mind.

Am I overreacting? Possibly. It’s a book after all. Kate Atkinson hasn’t caused me any bodily harm. But I feel ripped off. Life After Life was such a perfect book and A God in Ruins didn’t need to happen. But it did and I got my hopes up and they were crushed. It kills me because Atkinson is such a good writer. What she can do with language, few can. She writes some of the most beautiful prose and completely ruins it with horrible characters and a timeline that jumps all over the place. Instead of it being inventive, it’s frustrating and confusing.

I want to think about that ending as beautiful and inspiring. Instead, this comes to mind:  

Advertisements
13

Giving Kate Atkinson Another Shot: Human Croquet

I recently read and fell in love with Outlander but wasn’t ready to make the series commitment back to back. I ended up coming across a list of “If you loved Outlander, you will like these” reading list and Kate Atkinson’s Human Croquet was on it.

I added it to my list and the next time I was at the library I found it and decided it was meant to be.

I know, you’re all But Eva, besides Life After Life, you don’t like Kate Atkinson’s work! And you’re not wrong. After loving Life After Life and discovering that she had a bunch more books out there, I made it my mission to read them. And could not handle them. I did not like them at all and decided that I would stop reading her books. (Except the follow up to Life After Life that’s recently been announced. I will for sure be reading that.)

Her crime fiction I can’t handle. But her books with time travel themes? I was willing to give that another go with Human Croquet.

Human Croquet US

Isobel Fairfax wakes up in 1960 on her 16th birthday and suddenly begins to slip through pockets of time, finding herself on her street in 1918 before any of the houses on it are even a thought; in the town square when it’s still a market at least 300 years earlier; getting into a Groundhog Day scenario with Christmas Eve months later.

Her weird time travel is something she can’t control, and it only happens for moments at a time.

And it doesn’t seem to go anywhere.

Isobel’s mom disappeared when she was little and they have no idea what happened. Instead of traveling back to see what happened, we travel without her and it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with Isobel’s time travel. I liked finding out what happened, I liked going back to when her grandmother was still alive, to when Isobel and her brother Charles were the apple of their mom’s eye, to when their neighbours, the abusive headmaster Mr. Baxter and his family first moved in. But I found myself frustrated by the lack of any semblance of plot continuity. Jumping back to 1918 for a moment has exactly nothing to do with any of the Fairfax family so why are we doing it?

Atkinson’s mettle as a writer is clear in this book – she is able to do with words what so very few are. In the opening pages of the book, we go from a world with nothing, to watching time wreak changes on the landscape of the town that Isobel will come to know and such is her skill that I could actually see the changes as if I was watching a timelapse from the sky. But her skill as a writer has never been in question for me.

When the ending does come, I will admit, it’s a clever one. But I’m wondering if maybe it was too clever, if by hiding it so well Atkinson didn’t spoil some of the fun of reading a time travel novel; the reader should probably be in on the scheme.

That said, I think that writing Human Croquet meant that years later she was able to perfect Life After Life and if that’s the case, then I’m alright with having read it. Because Life After Life is still one of the best books I’ve read recently.

1

More Time Travel: The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells

Earlier this year I read and loved Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. Let’s be honest here and admit that the idea of time travel or a do-over appeals to all of us. Life After Life offered us glimpses of the lives that could have been had small things been done differently.

But Ursula herself was never totally aware of what was happening. She was sometimes vaguely aware of a scenario that was familiar in some way but she was never in control of the do-overs.

impossible life of greta wells

I just finished reading another time-travel-y novel, The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells by Andrew Sean Greer. (Can we just take a moment to appreciate the names that Atkinson and Greer chose for their heroines? Ursula and Greta are excellent choices. I’m a name nerd, I can’t help it.)

The time travel in this book is more controlled – Greta doesn’t have a choice but she’s aware of what causes the time shift. After the death of her twin brother and the break-up of her 10 year relationship, Greta is at a bit of a lose end. She decides to pursue electric shock therapy in the hopes that it will reset her brain. When she wakes up after the first treatment, she doesn’t recognize her 1987 life because she’s somehow found herself in 1918. Her brother is alive in this version of her life and her boyfriend is her husband but he’s at war. In the meantime she has met a young man, Leo, and she’s fallen in love with him. This Greta also has electric shock treatments which is how they switched places. Another treatment shoots Greta into 1941. This time she is married and has a son.

Greta is supposed to have something like 20 treatments and she figures out that the other women are following the same schedule. If all goes according to plan, she should end up back in 1987 in the end. In the meantime, each version of Greta seems to be doing her best to improve the life she inhabits at the time. The 1987 Felix that Greta lost was an openly gay man, who died of AIDS. She tries to help the 1918 and 1941 versions of Felix be themselves, thinking that this will make them happier. She tries to break things off with Leo in 1918 so that that Greta and her Nathan will have a chance.

It sounds confusing but you get used to the rhythm of the story very easily. I found that I appreciated the explanation for why the time travel was happening and the effects that it had on modern Greta. She views her own life differently because of her 1918/1941 experiences. She also starts to see their influence in her own life, like when 1941 Greta seems to have made attempts to contact 1987 Nathan after the break-up.

Ultimately, Greta has to make the classic time travel decision: go home to her own life or stay in someone else’s. In this case she wouldn’t just be making the decision for herself – the other Gretas are part of it as well. I’ve always been pretty certain that I’d try and stay in another time. Depends I guess.

I can’t remember ever gravitating towards time travel stories before. Obviously The Time Traveler’s Wife was an exception – let’s not even go there. So many feelings. But if there are more books out there like Life After Life and The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells, I’m totally up for that.

 

9

Apt Titles: When Will There Be Good News?

Earlier this year I was delighted with Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. I had never heard of Kate Atkinson before that and evidently, that was a serious mistake on my part. Speaking with a co-worker, I was informed that she has actually written a number of other books in the crime fiction genre. How was this something that I had overlooked?

I love crime fiction!

This same co-worker, responsible for my crash course introduction to the genius of Ian Rankin, made sure to educate me on Kate Atkinson and dropped a few of her books on my desk the next day.

The first one I made my way through was When Will There Be Good News?

A more apt title there probably never was. Nothing good happens in this book. If you are feeling a little blue and like the world is a sh*thole, don’t read this book.

when-will-there-be-good-news-pb

In the first 10 pages, an entire family is murdered, cut down in broad daylight by a crazy loaner with a knife. Mom, baby, one daughter and the dog, all dead. The surviving daughter is sent to live with dad and his mistress. Then we meet Reggie whose mother drowned on vacation with her new boyfriend. Dad’s been dead for years and her brother is a criminal. She is a mother’s helper to a Dr. Hunter who is basically the best person she’s ever known.

So naturally Dr. Hunter and her baby go missing one night. Reggie ends up spending that same night with her teacher/only friend who has cancer and ends up driving her car off the road and causing a train derailment.

One of our characters, Jackson Brodie,  on the train. He’s just been to steal a hair from a child that he’s convinced is his. He’s headed back to London to his new wife who is supposed to have been in DC this whole time.

So many bad things! When Dr. Hunter is missing and no one seems to take it seriously, Reggie takes the case to the police. The police officer who takes on the case, Louise, is kind of a bitch. She is married to this wonderful man and all she can think about is how suffocating it is to be married.

The story is very layered, a lot happens in a relatively short amount of time – 348 pages.  The lives of the characters intersect in unexpected ways but not always in a satisfactory way. Because there are so many characters that each have their own important plotlines to carry, the end can feel a bit hurried. I still have a lot of questions.

When I was in the middle of the book and finding that a lot of bad things were happening, I was assured by my co-worker that the end was happy. I guess, in light of what transpired over the course of the novel, the end could be considered happy. But it’s not really.

I loved Life After Life. I want to love Kate Atkinson. But based on When Will There Be Good News? I’m not sure that this is where we’re headed.

11

Life After Life

Last post I left you with a tease, which was a pretty ballsy thing to do, considering I’ve been a no-show around here for weeks and weeks!

So now, let’s talk about Life After Life by Kate Atkinson.

I first heard about this book getting my daily gossip fix on laineygossip.com. Lainey had read it and it stayed with her; she couldn’t get it out of her head. So she posted about it and the premise was so intriguing that I put it on my list.

Then I kept seeing it everywhere. And it became a Chatelaine Book Club pick.

My stumbling block? Only available in hardcover thus far.

Clearly I got over that.

The idea is thus: what would happen if you could live your life over and over again? If every time you died, you got to do it again and change things? Would you do things differently? Would the world around you be different?

life-after-life-e1364310158304

It’s an insanely inventive literary device, allowing Atkinson to tell multiple stories at one time. Initially it’s actually kind of a strange thing to get used to. The midwife is stuck in a snowstorm but the baby arrives with the cord around it’s neck, the baby dies. The doctor is able to make it, the cord is stuck around the neck but the baby lives.

The same baby is 4 and playing on the beach, jumping into the waves. She ventures too far and she drowns.

She’s playing on the beach, jumping into the waves but a painter painting the landscape sees it happen and pulls her out.

I promise I’m not ruining it for you.

This story was incredible. Some of the turns it takes are tragic, others are uplifting, still others are humorous. Eva Braun and Hitler make appearances. I became obsessed with the name Ursula. I’m told I can never name my daughter that because it still makes everyone think of the witch in The Little Mermaid. But if everyone would just read this book instead, maybe we could change that???

My one regret is that I didn’t suggest this as a book club read. This would have been a good one to talk about with other people.

Have you read it yet? Can we talk about it?