It’s a snowy night in 1910 and Ursula Todd is struggling to breathe as the umbilical cord chokes her to death before she can barely experience birth. Darkness falls.
It’s a snowy night in 1910 and Ursula Todd is born with the help of Dr. Fellowes, who has arrived in time to help mother Sylvie with this tricky birth. And so Ursula’s life begins, until she drowns on a beach trip as a child. Darkness falls.
It’s a snowy night in 1910 and Ursula Todd is born, continuing to relive her life. Each time she instinctually learns to avoid what troubles occurred in a past (or parallel) life, feeling merely like déjà vu. Kate Atkinson’s newest novel Life After Life is a trippy, humorous exploration of life and fate. Ursula’s continuous lives take her through both World Wars, with devastating and intriguing consequences. Atkinson effortlessly captures each time period, with a sharp wit reminiscent of Forster or Waugh.
If the premise sounds too gimmicky, I can assure you it doesn’t read as such. Atkinson makes it easy to get involved in this single life, with crossover themes, characters, moments, that only serve to enrich each new chapter instead of making it feel like a tedious retread of the same events. If Dan Brown’s Inferno is an obvious, thriller page-turner, Life After Life is one of those rare literary page-turners that will keep you up into the wee hours of the night.
I’ve already declared The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards as the best novel of 2013—or at least my favorite book of the year—but Life After Life could easily rival it. Both are entertaining, addicting, witty, incisive, and thought-provoking. I continue to think about the lives of Ursula and their implications, and I’m already eager to reread the novel.
Posted by xoxojk on June 10, 2013
Everyone is familiar with Henry VIII’s story, one way or another. Whether from TV (The Tudors) or film (The Other Boleyn Girl) or just plain old history class, we all know about King Henry’s driving desire for divorce in his quest for a male heir. But acclaimed author Hilary Mantel approaches the story from a different angle in Wolf Hall. She tells the story of Henry VIII and England in the early 1500s through protagonist Thomas Cromwell.
Cromwell rose from his working-class family and abusive father into the tutelage of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, feared advisor of the King. Learning from the master of manipulation, Cromwell takes over after Wolsey’s death, assisting the King in obtaining a divorce so he can marry Anne Boleyn. What results is a character study hidden within a game for the throne and Henry’s heir.
Mantel’s Wolf Hall is just the first in a planned trilogy following Cromwell in England’s history. She has a very unique voice that takes some acclimatizing to. While told in the omniscient third person, everything unfolds from Cromwell’s perspective with Mantel referring to him constantly as “he” in similar fashion to a first-person narrator referring to themselves as “I.” This removed yet personal perspective gives you a new outlook into the world of England at this time while still providing humorous moments and observations.
For anyone in love with English history, this a new take on an old story. Because Wolf Hall is a part of a trilogy, much of the novel is spent developing Cromwell as a character and setting up many of the other royal characters. It takes nearly 2/3 of the book before it feels that something is really happening with the Anne Boleyn plot, and the ending (dealing with Thomas More) feels anticlimactic. Yet I still find myself eager to read Bringing Up Bodies (the sequel), so it appears that Mantel is at least a captivating storyteller.
Posted by xoxojk on May 10, 2013
J.K. Rowling’s latest tome isn’t a book about a young wizard but instead about the political machinations of a small British town. Doing her best to channel contemporary British author Zadie Smith (a great choice of a writer to emulate), Rowling’s novel tackles class, race, and ethics in this small community of characters. Despite her efforts to make The Casual Vacancy an adult book (which it certainly is), it is the group of adolescents that provide not only the backbone for the story but also the more compelling characters in the story.
When beloved Barry Fairbrother dies, a casual vacancy is left open on the parish council. As the citizens of Pagford scramble to find a replacement, a malicious campaign for the vacancy ensues. And as The_Ghost_of_Barry_Fairbrother mysteriously begins posting rumors on the council website, some of these characters’ darkest secrets are exposed.
The sheer number of characters in this novel makes starting the story feel almost exhausting. Being in such a small town, they are all linked to each other, which makes it both difficult to grasp at first but also easier to keep track of them all later in the story. Fortunately, unlike other long novels, Rowling starts advancing the story early, making it much easier to get engrossed in this sprawling novel. She has also populated Pagford with engaging characters whose eccentricities build up to a terrific boiling point.
While at times Rowling’s intricately detailed story may feel exhausting, it becomes clear she knows exactly where the story is headed, effortlessly leading you to the climax. She’s able to weave her complex story through various character perspectives that jump not only through each chapter but sometimes within the chapters themselves (sometimes requiring a very close reading as she jumps around a large gathering). All of this works in your favor as you reach the very rewarding ending.
I’m hopeful that Rowling will continue to write these adult-oriented novels as she continues to develop her writing voice (a few of the techniques she uses throughout the novel prove that she has a lot to offer). I’m also hopeful that the upcoming BBC miniseries adaptation will prove to be an equally complex and engaging story, bringing to life these great characters.
Posted by xoxojk on March 26, 2013
In Salman Rushdie’s new memoir, Joseph Anton, he describes (in minute detail) his life during the fatwa against him. The fatwa was issued in response to his controversial novel The Satanic Verses. Interpreting his purely fictitious novel as an affront on Islam, Ayatollah Khomeini called for his murder. Forced to live under the protection of the British police, Rushdie renamed himself Joseph Anton (after writers Conrad and Chekhov).
This autobiographical account of his life (focused on the decade-long fatwa from 1988 to 1998) is both a testament to his survival from religious fanaticism and his fight for freedom of speech (not just for himself but for others in similar positions as his). This is a very detailed and in-depth memoir that at times feels too bogged down in the minute details of travels while in hiding or the excessive amounts of name dropping he uses—the latter proves to be both exciting and tiresome in its execution. But for all that, we do get fascinating insight into his life, both personal and professional, and learn a lot about his writing processes as well.
Rushdie acts as an almost impersonal historian, writing the novel in the third-person perspective. He refers to himself simply as “he,” only referencing his name when it concerns the name’s origins (or a play on their origins). This, combined with his astute writing style, gives the memoir a more literary feel as opposed to a tell-all memoir that other celebrities are penning these days. However, you must wonder how reliable an author he is, when he openly admits to altered remembrances of certain events. But the same is true of any autobiographical text.
Clocking in at 600-odd pages, this book loses much energy in the middle third. At times, surviving the fatwa feels almost as tiresome as reading about it. But Rushdie sprinkles enough interesting anecdotes throughout that you can find enjoyable moments even in the more tedious chapters. Of course, what was most fascinating to me was seeing how his personal life attributed to what he writes in his novels (how an interaction with a certain person would lead to the creation of a character in his novel). If you are unfamiliar with Rushdie as an author, then Joseph Anton may not be the best jumping-off point, although it does provide the perfect framework for his writing.
Posted by xoxojk on March 13, 2013
Casino Royale is the first of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels. And if you’ve seen the Daniel Craig film, then you’ll be familiar with the story’s premise. Bond must play a high-stakes card game to bankrupt the corrupt Le Chiffre. The novel also sets up the character of Bond for Fleming’s future stories. The fundamentals behind his classic traits and belief systems are grounded in the events that happen in Royale.
But don’t expect it to play quite like a Bond film. There are no extensive action sequences or steamy sex scenes (although Bond’s passionate feelings for Vesper Lynd do come close). Instead, Fleming explores the mind of Bond and his skills as a double-oh agent. It’s fascinating to follow his thought processes as he tries to escape various dangerous scenarios and how he gets to the bottom of certain mysteries. This is the main aspect that really sets the book apart from the films. Going into his personal motives and thinking behind actions makes him a far more fascinating character.
That being said, the film did a fantastic job of adapting it from this classic novel while still staying true to the film franchise. Of course, the novel’s tone more closely resembles the original Bond films—with SMERSH instead of SPECTRE and general anti-communism spread throughout. Yet on its own, Casino Royale is a tightly written spy thriller that literary Bond fans would adore.
It’s inclusion on The List is not surprising giving its influence on pop culture. Although there are many literary spy thrillers on the list, this one definitely has earned its own spot among fellow greats like John le Carre.
Posted by xoxojk on January 1, 2013
Ian McEwan’s newest novel, Sweet Tooth, is definitely his best work since Atonement. From the opening lines you are immediately sucked into the life of Serena Frome (pronounced like plume, she’s not afraid to remind you). She’s a maths student at Cambridge in the 1970s who has a greater passion for literature than numbers. When she’s recruited by MI5, her love of reading is utilized for the Sweet Tooth mission.
She’s sent to offer budding writer Tom Haley a grant that allows him to spend his time writing (instead of teaching). Unbeknownst to him, the money is sent by MI5 in the hopes that he’ll produce some anti-Communist fiction to counteract the Communist propaganda in the culture.
Serena is the girl who always falls for the wrong guys (married men, unavailable men, gay men); and it is inevitable that she falls for Tom as well. She justifies much of her romantic entanglement with Tom as extra work to keep an eye on his writing. But Serena learns of his new novella and faces a dilemma between influencing his work for MI5′s cause or letting his creativity grow freely.
Sweet Tooth is equal parts love story and spy novel with a healthy dose of literary appreciation. All those elements are combined to tell a deeply engrossing story. McEwan has also peppered in enough surprising twists that will keep you second-guessing everything Serena tells you as she narrates her story. And once you read the last chapter you’ll be sorely tempted to start again from the beginning with that new information in mind.
While this isn’t Ian McEwan’s best novel—he has so many great ones—it is without a doubt my favorite of his. It’s also of the best books I’ve read this year. You would definitely be remiss not to sink your teeth into this novel.
Posted by xoxojk on December 31, 2012
Pop culture’s obsession with gays having babies (i.e. The New Normal, Gayby) has finally moved across the pond to Britain. In the British webseries The Vessel, one gay couple asks their friend to be a surrogate for their child. Over 10 episodes, the series follows their attempts to get pregnant.
Due to the speed at which they filmed the series (6 days!), there are some unique aspects to the episode that differs from other webseries. Each episode is one uncut scene told from the “vessel’s” point-of-view. Also, each episode is mostly improvised, making the actors look skittish (or “quirky”). The gay couple (played by Giovanni Bienne and Philip Whiteman) comes off as especially frantic, but they manage to play off each other very well.
Because the camera is the surrogate’s eye, it actually makes it more difficult to sympathize with her character. Especially because the second episode works as a PSA for rules about surrogacy in England (you’d be surprised how much it differs from American policies). But in the third episode, she begins to show some hesitations regarding her decision and we get a little alone time with the character. These developments finally give us a sense of her character, and the episode is what actually sold me on the series.
With so many webseries floating around the Internet, it can be hard to decide which ones to watch (if you haven’t checked out Hunting Season you should definitely do so immediately). But The Vessel, despite its clinical-sounding title, is a topical series that is amusing and endearing.
New episodes are posted on Sunday evenings at 8pm.
Posted by xoxojk on November 6, 2012
Harold Fry receives a letter from an old coworker informing him that she is dying. Despite not having spoken with Queenie Hennessy for 20 years, Harold is so moved by the letter that he finds himself walking to her in an unlikely pilgrimage. He chats with a girl at a garage who plants the seed of faith in Harold, causing him to believe that if he walks across the country of England to her hospice that Queenie won’t die.
His pilgrimage takes him on an extraordinary journey that tests his faith not only in higher powers but also in himself. Long days of a walking alone leave Harold very introspective, examining his life to date and remembering the mistakes he has made. Harold’s sheer kindness affects the many strangers he meets on his pilgrimage, but it’s his absence from his wife Maureen that has the biggest impact.
Left alone, Maureen begins to doubt her life with Harold. She, too, remembers the past and the drama surrounding Queenie’s abrupt exit from Harold’s life and the effects of their son’s tumultuous life on their own marriage. Although Harold began his pilgrimage for Queenie, his walk ends up having a more profound effect on his marriage with Maureen.
Despite passages of overindulgent optimism, Rachel Joyce has crafted an uplifting tale about overcoming grief and regret. As a reader, you’ll be cheering Harold along on his journey. His moments of doubt, when he feels ready to quit the pilgrimage, will have you questioning your own opinions about faith and its power.
Much of the first half of the book drags, but once you get inside the mind of the characters, it becomes a more engaging novel. Although it is easy to foresee the plot twists that Joyce throws out in the end, when the secrets come spilling out, the book is more about the journey than the destination. And Harold’s journey is packed with a powerful message for the sentimentalist in every reader.
Posted by xoxojk on August 13, 2012
Six years after the events of Pride & Prejudice, Elizabeth Darcy is throwing the annual Lady Anne Ball and everything is going smoothly. But, as close friends and family are celebrating the night before, her sister Lydia unexpectedly bursts into Pemberley screaming that her husband Wickham is dead. So begins the latest work of crime fiction by master writer P.D. James.
Turns out, Wickham isn’t dead; but he is found holding the bloody corpse of his friend Captain Denny in the middle of the woods. Darcy himself is quickly involved and stays involved throughout the investigation and trial of Wickham. The novel gives a very interesting look into the British legal system of the time. And James gives some very Dickensian twists to our favorite Austenite characters.
Many secrets abound in this tale, but James juggles them easily while also seamlessly introducing us to some of the other new characters that didn’t exist in Pride & Prejudice. (Austen fans will also enjoy the few moments when characters from other Austen books are fleetingly referred to.)
Although some parts of the book seem to drag, know that everything will be resolved in Elizabethan fashion—in other words, 3-page-long monologues delivered in the final chapters will reveal all. And if, in your course of guessing whodunit, you begin to suspect lycanthropic involvement (Full moons! Mysteriously ill people!), then you have merely read too many supernatural books. Don’t worry; this isn’t Pride & Prejudice & Zombies (although that book is also really good, just in a different way).
Death Comes to Peberley is great way to revisit old friends and see what they’ve done with their lives. James creates believable futures for Austen’s characters while also reexamining their choices made in P&P. Just be warned, Austen fans, that after reading this book you will want to revisit Austen’s classics.
Posted by xoxojk on May 31, 2012
Malik Solanka is suffering from a deep-seeded fury. In a blackout rage he nearly slices up his wife with a knife in the middle of the night. Thinking a change of pace might cure him, Solanka moves to NYC (which is basically the least peaceful place on earth). His fury only grows, but the problem is that he is never conscious when he unleashes this inner rage. Thus, he begins to suspect himself of being the serial killer who has been killing women by smashing their heads with pieces of concrete.
Salman Rushdie’s psychological examination of Solanka is superb. He crafts a beautiful novel with intrigue and emotionality—and even an obsession with dolls. Rushdie seamlessly inserts literary allusions (Voltaire! Swift!) in his storytelling and his smart prose writing instantly elevates the IQ of anyone reading. In Fury, he crafted a compelling story with enough crazy characters to create unexpected surprises along the way. You never know where the story will lead.
I could come up with a multitude of praises for this novel, but it would be better if you just read it yourself. Meanwhile, I’ll be checking out the rest of his novels; I’m always excited when I find a writer that can surprise and excite me.
Posted by xoxojk on May 15, 2012