Monday, 14 November 2016

Life After Life // A God in Ruins


Before reading Life After Life and A God in Ruins I had never read any Kate Atkinson, and I can only say I'm glad to have remedied that now.  Her writing is beautiful and here we have two atmospheric, quietly moving stories.  They almost sneak up on you, especially Life - in the beginning I almost felt like not much was happening but before I knew it, I was more than 50 pages in and hooked.

Both novels feature members of the Todd family, with emphasis on one particular character in each.  In Life After Life we are introduced to Ursula Todd who is born one snowy night in 1910, and dies immediately.  In the very next page, Ursula is born again, and this time survives - for a while, at least.  The novel continues in this fashion as each time Ursula is born we follow the happenings of her life and witness how these affect the path she is on;  how in some cases the decisions she makes or things that happen to her catapult her into tragedy, and how on other occasions she is able to steer a straighter path.

Crucially, Ursula is unaware of her ability to 're-do' her life.  She often experiences a type of premonition that something awful is about to happen, which prompts her to make a different decision than she might have in a previous version of her life, but for the most part she does not do so consciously and is not actively setting out to change her own destiny.  This means the story manages to avoid being gimmicky.  Instead, it's a thoughtful look at how seemingly small events can affect a person's life, explored against the poignant backdrop of the Second World War.  The narrative moves backwards and forwards in time as you might expect, but each version of Ursula's life is helpfully scattered with details we have already encountered in previous ones, so it's easy to keep up with.

There are lots of good things to say about about Life After Life but the best thing for me was the characterisation.  The Todd family is a large one and they also have a variety of wider friends and family and with so many characters it can be easy for them to merge into one another - not here.  Each one is memorable and I had a real sense of who they were as individuals, from the solid patriarch Hugh (my favourite) to his wayward sister Izzie, and I enjoyed reading about all of them.

I couldn't say the same for A God in Ruins and even though I gave both books 4 stars on Goodreads, I would have to say that I didn't enjoy this quite as much, but only for the reason that I just didn't like some of the characters as much.  In this companion novel the focus shifts to Ursula's brother Teddy Todd and flicks backwards and forwards in time, looking at his time in the RAF during the war and his life afterwards, into old age.  In the present and recent past segments we are introduced to Teddy's family and some of the narrative is from their point of view, and they just were not characters I enjoyed reading about, particularly not Teddy's daughter Viola.  She was self-indulgent and petty and I found myself feeling annoyed with her quite a lot.  The reason behind their rocky relationship is made clear by the end, but Teddy had been one of the most endearing characters in Life After Life and I felt upset that he didn't have the family life he wanted!

For me, A God in Ruins had the more powerful message.  It's hard to say too much about it without giving the ending away, but it was very affecting and genuinely thought-provoking.  Again the Second World War is almost a character in itself, and personally this is a time period I love to read about in historical fiction.  My heart was in my mouth many a time following Teddy on his bomber raids.  These moments in contrast with the quieter, more reflective passages of Teddy's life after the war make for a very moving story and both books really have something to say about the fragility of life.

Two books that I'm very glad I read, and I will definitely be reading some more of Kate Atkinson's work in the future.

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

The Girl of Ink & Stars



Forbidden to leave her island, Isabella dreams of the faraway lands her father once mapped. When her best friend disappears, she's determined to be part of the search part. Guided by an ancient map and her knowledge of the stars, Isabella navigates the island's dangerous Forgotten Territories. But beneath the dry rivers and dead forests, a fiery myth is stirring from its sleep...

Rating: ★★★★

From the first few pages I was hooked by this story.  Set in a world not too different from ours, we're straight away introduced to Isabella and her father who live in a village named Gromera on the island of Joya. Isabella's father is a cartographer and from him she has learned some of the basics of map-making.  This is a theme that runs throughout the story and echoed in the design of this beautiful little book, from the front cover to the illustrated maps on the end papers, to the cartography symbols that adorn each page.

The story and setting are very immersive and beautifully written. The island of Joya is steeped in history and we learn about this from the start as Isabella recounts some of the stories her father has told her, including the myth explaining Joya's past as a floating island and this was fascinating, involving all kinds of strange and wonderful things.  The author also begins setting up the story straight away as we're told that the island in the present day is divided, following the arrival of Governor Adori, and the villagers are forbidden from crossing into what are known as the Forgotten Territories.  Now something strange is happening in the village however we don't find out exactly who the Governor is, why the island is separated or what the strange happenings mean until much later on, and by then we're already following the characters on a wonderful adventure.

It was great to read a middle-grade novel with a heroine.  Isabella and her best friend Lupe, the Governor's daughter, very much lead the story.  For me, Lupe was actually the more interesting character.  Isabella is brave and loyal, but Lupe is more conflicted - she lives with her father who is not very fair to the people of Gromera, yet has to attend school with their children.  Because of this for me her growth during the story was more rewarding.  However I really enjoyed all the characters and in particular the focus on friendship.

This book has a lot of heart and is absolutely bursting with all the things I love most in a story - myth and magic, adventure, friendship.   At times I felt like there was a little too much going on, but that's barely a criticism.  I've read that the US version has been titled The Cartographer's Daughter and I'm not sure why, as I think the sense of magic and fantasy of the story are more accurately captured in the UK title.  Either way, I would definitely recommend this for both children and adults.

Monday, 28 March 2016

The Ballroom


1911: Inside an asylum at the edge of the Yorkshire moors, where men and women are kept apart by high walls and barred windows, there is a ballroom, vast and beautiful.  For one bright evening every week, they come together and dance.  When John and Ella meet, it is a dance that will change two lives for ever.  Set over the heatwave summer of 1911 at the end of the Edwardian era, The Ballroom is a tale of unlikely love and dangerous obsession, of madness and sanity, and of who gets to decide which is which.

Rating: ★★★★★

The Ballroom is a beautifully written novel following the lives of a small cast of characters during their days at an asylum on the Yorkshire Moors, where male and female patients are segregated other than once a week, when they are allowed to come together to dance. 

The story is centered around three main characters and is told in turn from their own perspectives: John Mulligan, a long-term patient; Ella Fay, a factory worker who finds herself admitted after a heat-induced outbutst at work; and Dr Fuller, a member of asylum staff.  All the characters are very compelling and have great depth to them.  John and Ella's love story was one of the most touching I have ever read and completely absorbing.  Anna Hope beautifully captured the desperation of their situation and their longing to be together.  Through their respective chapters we also learn a lot about asylum life, the tasks patients would be expected to do, their treatments, and other experiences they might have whilst living there.  Dr Fuller's chapters provide the historical backdrop as we are given an insight into attitudes towards mental health in the Edwardian era, and the eugenics movement.  As the novel progresses, Dr Fuller becomes a very different character to the one we are introduced to at the start, as we witness a change in his attitudes towards the feeble minded and what he believes is the best course of action.  The historical elements of the novel were really interesting and very well detailed.

Anna Hope's writing flows beautifully, and The Ballroom is a haunting, atmospheric book.  Both the asylum and the weather - as the novel is set during a heatwave summer - are so vividly described that they are almost like characters in themselves and the whole time I was reading I was easily able to imagine being there, experiencing asylum life along with the characters.

I was fascinated to learn that the novel was based on the true story of the author's grandfather and his time at the very real High Royd's Hospital in Yorkshire.  This was particularly interesting to me as the asylum is not very far from where I live, and I've often heard people mention it!  The first time in a long time that I've felt compelled to read even more about the subject of a novel, I was really interested to learn that the hospital, formerly West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum, really did have a ballroom and dances really were held for the patients as described.  Anna Hope has taken this reality and expanded on it to create an unforgettable story.

Too long, didn't read?  Here's my Goodreads review:

The BallroomThe Ballroom by Anna Hope
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A beautiful love story set against a fascinating historical backdrop, in a very vivid and atmospheric setting. Completely absorbing.

View all my reviews

Friday, 11 March 2016

Let me photograph you in this light


... in case this is the last time that we might be exactly like we were.

On Tuesday night this week we got the train to Manchester to see Adele in concert.  There she is, look, above.  We had a pretty good view, albeit very high up so she looked very tiny to us!  But in all honesty, the fact that we couldn't see her very well didn't matter at all once she started singing.  That voice!  It goes without saying that she can sing but she sounds even more amazing live.  She's well known for her personality too and this shone through - even though we were in a sold out arena she made it feel a lot more intimate, like she was just having a chat with us all and very down to earth, and was so great with the audience - stopping for selfies on her way between stages (she had a smaller stage set up near the back of the arena) and even letting a couple of people up on stage with her for photos and inviting a 12 year old girl on stage to duet Someone Like You with her - that was really special.

Her setlist was really good, she did all the big popular ones along with some other favourites of mine and yes, I did have a little cry.  I always say that I feel the same about Adele as Emma Thompson's character in Love Actually feels about Joni Mitchell - she taught me how to feel.  Quite a few of her songs really get me but actually the one that makes me cry the most is Million Years Ago.  It's kind of a strange feeling to hear your own thoughts summarised so well by another person and the first time I listened to that song, I was sobbing by the end of the first chorus.  It was like she'd scooped thoughts right out of my mind and turned them into lyrics.  So I was really glad she played that one.

The highlight of my year so far!

Thursday, 25 February 2016

Peter Pan (Classic #1)



This review contains spoilers.

The Darling children are tucked up in bed when Peter Pan bursts in to their nursery.  Peter and his mischievous fairy Tinker Bell entice Wendy and her brothers to fly away with them to a magical world called Neverland.  There you can swim with mermaids and play all day with the Lost Boys.  But you must watch out for pirates, especially Captain Hook.  And how do you find Neverland?  Second to the right and straight on till morning of course.

Rating: ★★

My first read for the 2016 Classics Challenge was Peter Pan by J.M Barrie.  I really want to combine the challenge with my goal to read more children's literature and Peter Pan was high up on my list. I'm already very familiar with the story, but I thought it was high time I read the original book, already pretty sure that I would love it.

I couldn't have been more disappointed!   I didn't love it at all.  I was expecting a light and fluffy adventure story with lots of magic and excitement; what I got was a very dark tale about some really horrible children.  I knew the Lost Boys were supposed to be a little rough around the edges but I wasn't expecting them to be quite so bloodthirsty!  The book is peppered throughout with graphic descriptions of death and violence that seemed inappropriate given the target audience.  I couldn't particularly get along with any of the characters - Wendy was annoying (though to be fair, she is in the film too), there's not a single likeable thing about Peter, and the rest of the characters just didn't really interest me.

Peter Pan was actually quite a disturbing read and generally left a bad taste in my mouth.  I didn't like the casual attitude to violence but bloodshed aside, there were lots of other things that troubled me about it - can we talk about the scene where Peter threatens to expose Tinkerbell in her underwear for refusing to guide Wendy home?  The narrator also cuts into the story a lot and I thought he was a very harsh and judgemental voice for a children's book - he makes a lot of quite nasty comments about children, and seemed particularly disgusted with women.  In fact, the whole book carries a very misogynistic message.

The writing was very disjointed and the constant interjections from the narrator made it quite a chore to read.  To me a lot of the language seemed like it might be quite difficult for younger readers and given this along with everything else, I'm not sure it's actually suitable for children.  It has all the elements of a fairytale but there's nothing nice about it.

Overall, not a very positive start to my Classics Challenge.  Hopefully I'll have better luck with the next one!  Have you read Peter Pan?  A lot of people seem to see something in it that I didn't - I'd love to know your thoughts!

Sunday, 21 February 2016

The Fox and The Star


For as long as Fox could remember, his only friend had been Star, who lit the forest paths each night. But then one night Star was not there, and Fox had to face the forest all alone.

Rating: ★★★

I loved everything about The Fox and The Star.  If you know me, you will know that I'm a sucker for a pretty cover and this has to be one of the most beautifully designed books I've ever seen.  It just feels really special with its navy cloth bound cover, and inside is even better. First and foremost a picture book, each of the 64 pages is printed on lovely, thick paper and beautifully illustrated by the author.  Her art is reason enough to give this a read.  Absolutely gorgeous!

The story is lovely too, a simple but sweet fable about not giving up and having the courage to go out looking for your light.  I have seen this described as 'a John Lewis advert in book form' and I think this was intended to be a negative comment, but for me it's the perfect way to describe this book!  As a John Lewis advert is typically able to move you in approximately 30 seconds, Coralie Bickford-Smith manages to make you care about Fox and his quest to find Star with very few words and it has the same heartwarming quality to it.  

The moral might be lost on younger children but I think all ages would appreciate the story.  The illustrations also bring an interactive element to it - for example, on some pages the words are placed among the pictures in a kind of trail for the reader to follow and whilst the little fox features on most pages you sometimes have to look a little harder to find him.  I can see this being great for parent child reading and it's definitely one to be treasured - but maybe not given to children who haven't yet learned how to take care of books!

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Latibule


Latibule (n). a hiding place; a place of safety and comfort.

My favourite hiding place is my bed, especially just after I've put new bedding on and if I have my hot water bottle. I love to pull the covers right up under my chin and curl up. But last week, I found a new hiding place in the form of the empty office next door to mine. There was a meeting going on in our usual break room and I didn't want to sit at my desk, so I took a walk to get some food. On my way back, I passed the empty office next door. I've known it was empty for a while but on this day, the door was open and before I even really knew what I was doing, I walked inside and sat down. That hour of complete peace and quiet was bliss. It's hard to completely relax in our break room because you can still hear the phones ringing, or you can't escape forced conversation with other colleagues on their lunch too. 

I'm quite content with my own company - cut me in two and you would find the word 'introvert' written through me like a stick of rock - and in my new found hiding place, there's no one else to interrupt the quiet, or make me feel like I'm being antisocial for wanting to just read and not talk. I've always been okay on my own, but I'm finding myself especially reluctant to be around people at the moment; my confidence has taken some big knocks in recent months and I just find it easier to be by myself. I think it did me some good to take that time out in the middle of the day for a real breather - not sat in a noisy coffee shop, or wandering around outside. I don't know how long that office will be empty for but as long as it is, I'll be using it as my lunchtime latibule.

Image via Unsplash.

Thursday, 14 January 2016

Always


Another light went out in the world today, and it was a bright one. I was shocked and deeply saddened to hear of Alan Rickman's passing. I could not believe what I was reading. It was only a couple of weeks ago that Paul and I visited the Warner Bros Studio Tour and while I was there, I found myself thinking that if only I could bottle the feeling I have whenever I visit. It is one of my happiest happy places, there where my favourite stories came to life. That feeling is thanks in part to Alan Rickman.

You only need to have a quick scroll through any social media today to see that he was admired by many people for many different reasons and roles, but to me he will always be Severus Snape. Anyone who holds Harry Potter as close to their heart as I do will understand how special and important those stories and characters are. We grew up with them and their on-screen incarnations. One of the greatest gifts an actor can give is to bring a beloved character to life, and to do them justice. Snape was in safe hands, always.

Rest in peace, Mr Rickman. I raise my wand to the sky for you. Thank you for being our Snape.