My mum has been telling me to read some Kate Atkinson books for years but I have, of course, been ignoring her. After watching (and really enjoying) the Case Histories adaptations on TV last year, I decided that she might actually be right – but rather than starting with a Jackson Brodie novel I opted for Life After Life instead. The novel begins with a baby being stillborn, cheery right? Then you turn the page and the baby is born again, but this time it lives. The story follows baby Ursula as she grows up but rather than having a normal childhood she is plagued with bouts of deja vu and hazy, unexplainable memories as, it turns out, each time she dies she is reborn again (oh yeah, she dies a lot – drowning, falling off a roof, being bombed in the Blitz and Spanish flu to name a few). Sounds a bit complicated, but it’s not – think of it sort of as a cross between The Butterfly Effect and Groundhog Day, but set throughout the early 20th century and, you know, better. I liked that this was a fairly bleak novel; even when Ursula was born for the second, third, fourth time and her life took a slightly different path, none of her “lives” really had a happy ending. I started to lose interest about half way through when she suddenly became part of Hitler’s inner circle (what are the CHANCES? but I suppose that’s kind of the point of the novel), but luckily it soon veered back to concentrating on her personal life rather than how she could’ve stopped the Second World War. By the end, you’re left not really knowing which was the real timeline (or, if there were any timelines at all, maybe when she was born the first time she died and that was that) which lets you make up your own mind. Overall I thought it was nicely written and I love “what if” sort of stories, would definitely recommend it.
I started reading this book with a very cynical attitude; I wasn’t expecting to like it. I felt I would definitely be too old for it, especially as I was never really a big fan of the “young adult” genre, even when I was a teenager. But I wanted something quick and easy to read that I could finish in a day, and I had heard lots of people recommending Eleanor & Park, so decided to give it a go. And oh my lorrrrrd, did this win me over. Throughout the first quarter of the book I remained all frowny-grumpy-why-am-I-reading-this, but then suddenly I just got sucked in and it seemed as if the novel was describing exactly how I felt when I was fifteen. Set in 1980s Nebraska, the novel begins with Eleanor, a new kid at school, ending up sitting next to Park on the bus on her first day. They’re both outcasts, in different ways, and over time they start to become friends. And then more than friends. This novel did such a good job of capturing exactly what love feels like when you’re fifteen; it’s all-consuming and thrilling and so unbelievably important but at the same time you kind of know it’s temporary. I also loved how there was such a strong focus on music throughout the novel. Isn’t it funny how the bands you like entirely define who you are when you’re fifteen, but ten years later it barely matters? By the end of the book I was crying buckets, and then when I finished it I immediately dug out my journals from when I was 15/16 and wallowed in self-pity for a few hours. Brilliant.
The Basic Eight is written in the form of a diary, telling of the events during senior year at high school which lead to the demise of narrator Flannery Culp and her group of friends, “the Basic Eight”. At the beginning, it is made clear that Flan has been accused of murder as part of a satanic cult, and her diaries (which she has gone back and edited for “clarity” – hello unreliable narrator!) are her attempt to set out exactly what happened. It’s all very Secret History-esque. I started reading this months and months ago but abandoned it half way through because the characters were just so unbelievably annoying (they regularly hold exclusive dinner parties, have a breakfast club at school where they listen to opera, and so on) and the story was pretty slow moving with endless accounts of how they were all trying to be the prettiest, the cleverest, the most cultured or the skinniest member of the Basic Eight. I picked this up again last week and somehow raced through the second half of the book; it was much more engaging than the first half, especially as you knew there was a murder to come, and you knew it must be coming soon. There’s a big twist at the end and, although I didn’t guess it beforehand (perhaps because I had been stopping and starting my reading at the beginning), the second I read it I was like “aahhhh yes, that makes total sense”. Peppered with dark humour and satirical pop culture references, it’s worth battling through the first part as once you become accustomed to the precocious characters and the plot starts to pick up the pace you’ll really get sucked in. Whilst I wouldn’t necessarily say I liked this novel, I did enjoy reading it – if that makes any sense at all.
What have you been reading lately?