“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.
My children are avid readers and we often share and discuss the books we read. My son, Connor, in particular, always wants to know what I am currently reading and what it’s about and whether or not I like it. More often than not, I feel relatively ‘meh’ about a book. The books I really love are few and far between, a fact which makes Con roll his eyes. “You never love any books, Mom,” he says.
It’s not true, of course. I love lots of books. I read constantly and I’m always ready to be wowed by a book. I want it to be the book that makes me shout from this blog: you MUST read this book. I have a whole list of books like that here.
So that brings me to Painting Juliana, the debut novel by Texan writer Martha Louise Hunter. About thirty pages into the book I thought to myself, I can’t read this. Then I thought, Am I missing something? I went off to read other reviews – most of which were glowing. So, I attacked the book again. I eventually settled into the book, but I have to admit that this one falls into the decidedly ‘meh’ category for me.
Painting Juliana is the story of Juliana Morrissey née Birdsong. She’s married to Oliver, a big-shot lawyer, and mother to thirteen-year-old twins Lindsey and Adam. When the novel opens, she’s just been told (while at a marriage counselling session, no less) that Oliver is divorcing her. It’s apparent pretty early on that Oliver is a total asshat, but Juliana is absolutely floored by the news that he’s kicking her to the curb. She has twenty minutes to pack her bags and get out of the family home. Oh, and the kids are staying put.
Juliana has no place to go and she has more problems than just dealing with Oliver and her fractured family. She’s got a rocky relationship with her gay brother, Richard, and her father has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Plus, she has no skills. She was going to go to law school, but she got married instead. Now all she has are designer bags and a lot of debt. Also, there are some unresolved mommy issues and mysterious paintings that come to life.
Painting Juliana is the story of a woman reinventing herself and that’s a story that I can get behind. Having recently gone through a divorce myself, I empathized with her predicament and there were some moments when I felt as though Hunter got it just about right.
Where the book didn’t work for me, though, was some of the dialogue. For example, when Oliver and Juliana meet for a supposed conciliatory lunch, Oliver dismisses the waiter by loudly announcing: “Be gone with you, Jim. I must make out with my wife now” to which Juliana replies, “Unhand me, sir! I’m a married woman.”
At lunch with her friend, Kimberley, the women are interrupted by a man in his mid-forties who says: “I hear you’re in real estate now…I’ve been wanting to get into some real estate…preferably between your legs.” Do grown people really speak this way?
Another friend says to Juliana,”You’ve always gotten what you wanted, Juliana. The successful husband, the decked-out house, great car, the best clothes and jewelry. Plus you’re gorgeous with a smoking bod.” Seriously. Are we thirteen?
Moments like this – and there are many of them – made me cringe. The dialogue often felt clunky and expository and not at all the way people actually speak.
I also felt that perhaps Hunter tried to pack too much into this novel – as though the story of a woman trying to find herself post divorce wasn’t enough. There’s enough material in here for at least another novel and a half. I do think that some of the subplots were simply distracting and the novel might have benefitted from some judicious editing.
When, at the end of the day, I don’t feel strongly about a book one way or the other – it falls into the ‘meh’ category for me, and Painting Juliana is that kind of book. However, it appears that my feelings about the novel are eclipsed by readers who felt the novel is amazing, so let’s chalk my feelings about it to my own book snobbery.
Told 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.
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:
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.
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!
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.
The Qualities of Wood is Vivian Gardiner’s story. She has given up her life in the city to join her husband, Nowell, in a small town where they will live in the house he inherited from his grandmother. The plan is that they’ll do some cosmetic work to the property and in a year or so, sell it. Nowell will also use the time to work on his second mystery novel. On the day Vivian arrives at the Gardiner homestead the body of a teenage girl is found in the woods at the back of their property. Although her death is almost immediately ruled accidental, it still seems to be the sun around which all the players in this novel orbit. All that sounds promising, right?
I liked this novel when I started reading it. White is a lovely writer and there were several moments in the novel where I lingered over her words. For example:
They turned at the back corner of the house and the open space hit her like a deep breath.
So my issues with the book don’t have anything to do with the quality of the writing. My issues have to do with pacing and characterization. And I am a reader who can generally read books that don’t have much of a forward thrust.
Okay – so Vivian arrives at this run-down house. She and Nowell, who have only been married for about four years, have been separated for four weeks. It’s going to take some adjusting. Soon enough they seem to fall into this pattern. Nowell gets up early and gets to work in a little space he has partitioned off from the rest of the kitchen with a sheet. Vivian alternately lazes about or works at sorting through the lifetime of junk Grandma Gardiner left behind. The reader is treated to a laundry list of this detritus: “used paperback romances, sewing things and scraps of fabric, and entire box of plastic silverware, plates and cups.” There’s dressers full of clothes and other personal items. There’s even a gun, which seems promising – but sadly isn’t used to kill anyone.
And I think that’s my main complaint about The Qualities of Wood. There’s no mystery here. Vivian is stuck in a small, unfamiliar town with a husband who becomes increasingly strange to her. But she’s strange, too. I never really warmed up to either of them – or any of the characters for that matter. When Nowell’s brother, Lonnie, and his new bride, Dot, show up it just ups the ante of strange behaviour. The narrative alternates between Vivian doing mundane things like subscribing to the local newspaper, visiting with her new friend Katherine and running a three-day yard sale (and did we really need to hear about all three days?) and breaking into her neighbour’s house in the middle of the night. Okay, sure Mr. Stokes is odd, but Vivian this is not the behaviour of a rational person; you know that, right?
There’s also some back story – like the time Vivian got lost in the woods (I thought that was going somewhere) and the time she snuck out of her house to go to a party (so is this, then, meant to be a novel about someone who barely had a chance to rebel and now she’s married and her husband is pressuring her to have kids and she just wants to be free?) In some ways I think part of my dissatisfaction with this novel is that there’s too much going on. Some of it feels like filler (like describing Katherine’s driving skills) and some of it feels like unrealized potential (glimpses into Nowell’s latest novel). Either way, I was ready to pack it in at page 100.
If The Qualities of Wood is meant to be about secrets, as the blurb on the back of the novel claims it is, they better be worth spilling. When all is revealed in the novel’s final pages, none of what is exposed makes up for the minutiae the reader has plodded through to get there.
It’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.
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.
Quinn, 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.
I know, I know – I haven’t summed on a Saturday in ages. It’s been busy!
I am fascinated with zines and am playing with the idea of having my students make one as part of our study of Romeo and Juliet. I found a terrific link for How to Make a Zine and the simple instructions allowed me to build a zine in about two minutes without the need for glue or staples or anything!
By a strange coincidence, my 14-year-old son was invited to an event last night hosted by a zine produced here in Saint John, Hard Times in the Maritimes. He had a ball and came home with a copy of the zine, which will be an excellent example to show my students.
Today is the second and last day of the library’s annual book sale, an event which I love. I didn’t find quite as many treasures as I usually do – oh who am I kidding. I lugged home three big bags full of books including some which were actually on my tbr list. I also nabbed a couple dozen new books for my classroom library. If you live here in Saint John, check it out today at Market Square until 3pm. Here’s my haul - well part of my haul because I was there first thing yesterday morning and then went back with my son after school. All those books cost me just $27.
This is hilarious: the Ottawa public library was asked to remove Dr. Seuss’s book Hop on Pop from its shelves because it apparently condones, promotes even, violence against fathers. What other strange requests for censorship has the library had? Read about them here.
Speaking of censorship, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s stories are being published without censorship for the first time.