Book of the Year 2018: ‘Life After Life’ by Kate Atkinson

So my Book of the Year 2018 was actually published in 2013. Yes, I’m kicking these off with an “If I Haven’t Read It, It’s New To Me”. I’ve actually read more new releases this year then I have in the past and really wanted to pick one of those to have an actual book of 2018. (With that in mind I would have picked Laura Purcell’s The Corset, so you should definitely look into that one if you can). But my final choice had to be Life After Life by Kate Atkinson.

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This one grabbed the top spot both because of how good it is, and that it introduced me to Atkinson as a writer. I’ve since read more of her work and she’s shot right up to the top three or four of the list of my favourite writers.

Life After Life is the story of the multiple lives of Ursula Todd. The story starts with her dying at birth on a cold February night. Then it restarts, on the same night, this time with her surviving birth only to die early in childhood. Then it restarts, over and over, each time restarting on the same February night. And each time she brings with her small memories and feeling from her last life to help her shape the next.

While this may sounds a little Groundhog Day, it’s far more complex than that. Ursula doesn’t get reborn with all her memories. All that she retains are images, memories and vague feelings. For example, after one life where she drowns, in her next life when she goes to enter the sea on that day she has an unexplained panic attack, leading someone to notice her going in who is able to rescue her. But unlike Groundhog Day it doesn’t stick to the simplistic idea of retrying your life until you “get it right”. Some of Ursula’s lives are better than others, with each one echoing differently into those that come next. And while most lives are largely similar, some veer off wildly, showing how the smallest chance events can have a massive impact on your life.

What’s amazing about this novel is how Atkinson manages to entwine timelines together. I am a massive sucker for interwoven non-linear timelines in novels. I think it’s something that I know can only go one of two ways; perfectly or crash-and-burn. I’d also want to do something similar one day but I’m not sure I’d be able to pull it off.

Her style is so smooth and natural the concept never seems gimmicky or trite. And you honestly come to care about Ursula and her family. You truly get a feeling of relief when you see her avoiding an event that ruined a previous life.

I honestly can’t recommend Kate Atkinson’s work enough. I’m only three books into her backlog and looking for the rest each time I’m out for a new read. 

Review: The Beauty of Murder

This was an odd one for me. Taken in it’s entirety, I liked every aspect of it. It’s only looking at each aspect individually that different elements jarred for me.

fullsizeoutput_33a4The Beauty of Murder has an truly fascinating concept; how do you track down and capture a time travelling murderer? Someone who can dump a body centuries before they committed the crime? Or even after? Stephen Killigan is a newly arrived Cambridge lecturer who stumbles upon the body of a missing beauty queen that seemingly disappears before he can show anyone. Soon he finds himself caught up in the web of Jackamore Grass, a man with the ability to time travel and a fascination with the apparent beauty of death.

The book itself is great. I’m not a massive fan of crime mysteries, but this avoids most of the tropes I dislike and its concept gaves it a twist that adds a wonderfully fantastical element that other books of this genre often lack. The writing itself is great, and for the most part the characters are interesting and believable.

The only one who put me off a bit was, unfortunately, the protagonist himself. I didn’t go to Cambridge so I might not know the place or the culture, but Stephen Killigan just didn’t quite fit for me. He was a little too cool, and little too instantly popular. The scenes of him teaching didn’t really feel believable for someone starting a prestigious new job. (He also seemed to have a habit of getting tattoos on a whim, from tattooist who will work on people who have just wondered into their shop, which left me a little judging as to their integrity, but I think that’s just me.) Most of the time I had no problem with him, especially once the story got going and I was able to settle into him. It just took a little while to get comfortable enough to slide past those ragged parts.

The other issue I had was the timeframe. About halfway through there is a massive time jump which didn’t seem to be addressed. Without wanting to give too much away, one of the main characters goes through a serious operation that would have required several weeks of recovery. But this jump isn’t addressed, and I was left with the feeling that the plot just paused for a few months. It didn’t ruin the story, I just feel that there needed to be something more here to address this as it left me wondering why all the other character just got on with their lives waiting for this one to get batter.

But other than these two gripes I really enjoyed The Beauty of Murder. It took a few chapters for me to get into it, and the middle had this jarring point where timeframes didn’t match up, but the rest of it was great. A brilliant concept, intriguing ideas and a murderer with methods I hadn’t read anywhere else.

Review: Stick and Stones

Imogen has lived her life under the control of her husband, Phillip, from the first day she met him. Even after her left her and their son for a younger woman, their shared past has meant she’s never been able to be truly free of him. But when he suddenly demands she move out her house in two weeks, it start of a series of events that brings Imogen together with Phillip’s first wife and new girlfriend. Together they learn that through Phillip they share a bond no one else can understand, and decide that they will finally no longer allow him to control them.

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Sticks and Stones (Or Exes Revenge in America) is an amazing debut novel, and an astounding piece of domestic noir. Opening with the Phillip’s funeral, we’re then taken back over the previous two weeks – and the years preceding –  to discover exactly what happened that led to his death.

The story is expertly put together. It manages to twist and turn without ever feeling gimmicky or predictable. At no point do you get bored or feel anything is being padded out. Jakeman’s writing is lean and slick, leaving in nothing unnecessary. She perfectly keeps the mystery going without resorting to cheap tricks or cliches, throwing in red herrings and distractions that made it impossible to guess where we’re heading. At times I thought I’d guessed incoming reveals onto to discover I was completely wrong.

But as good as the story is, it’s the characters that really make this book. The concept of the mentally abusive husband and dominated wife finally seeking revenge is one that could easily become two dimensional, but Jakeman has created a cast of characters who all feel fleshed out and real. You really feel for Imogen, who never comes across as either comically weak or impossibly resolved. When she changes it’s because her character development brought here there, not because the plot required it to move forward. She comes across as a real person doing her best to avoid conflict with an ex-husband she knows can control her but can do nothing about, all the while fighting to protect her son over everything else. Phillip, too, is never a pantomime villain. He may be a monster, but he’s a monster of the type we all know is so very real. The kind who hides behind a reputation and knows exactly what they are doing.

Sticks and Stones isn’t any easy read. There are trigger warnings for all aspects of domestic abuse here. But all of it is packaged in an impossibly hard to put down story of one woman discovering how far she is prepared to go to defend her child and get revenge on a man determined to ruin her life.

Review: Questionable Content Vol 6

I always love it when one of my webcomics releases their latest print edition. Being relatively quick to read, it’s a simple thing to do a re-read of the previous editions, basically reading the entire comic from the start. Webcomics are always interesting to read like this; a medium designed for to be read in small chunks read daily now available to read through in one sitting.

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Book 6 covers the period where the art style for Questionable Content kind of settled into it’s “final” stage. Like many other webcomics of the same era, Jacques’ art grew and developed as he wrote. Personally, still prefer the slightly more cartoony “middle” style of the comic which spanned the third, fourth and fifth books. That’s not to say I dislike the current art style, it’s just my preference.

As well as the art, Book 6 is where the characters began to settle and grow. The previous years were focused on the main trio; Martin, Faye, and Dora. Other characters were there, but they always revolved around the main group. Now things moved on, bringing in the supporting roles and developing their lives and stories. By this point the comic is more of an ensemble; portraying the life of a large group of friends, rather than more focused story of the original love-triangle.

Essentially, this collection can be considered to cover the period where Questionable Content settled into “Modern QC” rather than “Classic QC”. (Although if I wanted to be wanky about this I could actually call it “Classic Modern” or some ridiculous thing, and I think over the last year or so the comic has shifted again to focus into a new area, and is a little weaker than it once was.)

Questionable Content has always been one of my favourite webcomics. It’s always been either the first or one of the first ones I’ll check updates on when going through my RSS feeds. At this point in its run I still find all of the characters interesting, and while I have my favourites (Hannelore & Raven for ever!) it’s not the reached the point yet where there are enough characters for me to compare unfavourably with those I’ve always loved.

Questionable Content has always been, to me, one of the better webcomics out there over the last fifteen years. The characters are realistic enough to relate to and and just “other” enough from ours to keep it interesting without making it too genre. The fact that this is the latest printed collection and it’s still 7 years behind kind of makes me wish he would hurry up and push out the backlog so I can have the full collection, but I’m happy to wait. Plus, if I get impatient I can just go online and read them there.

Review: A Blink of the Screen

I can never quite get my head around Terry Pratchett doing short fiction. I don’t know why, but for me he’s a long form writer. That’s not to say anything in this collection is bad, far from it. Possibly its because he books usually have so many layers and meanings and shorter fiction doesn’t really have time for these. Pratchett himself says – in his notes – that he found short fictions hard to to, so maybe he thought the same thing.

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So reading A Blink of the Screen is enjoyable, yet slightly weird. We’re in that strange place where you’re defining each work as inferior to his full novels, but inferior Pratchett is still superior to most writers. I think, if I had to put my finger on it, the issue I have is all of them feel like rough ideas waiting to be developed. As if Pratchett was simply putting down an idea on paper, fleshing it out a little bit with the intention of coming back later. I couldn’t help feeling like there was more there somewhere.

The most obvious example of this being that one of the stories in this collection is almost literally a synopsis of Truckers. Each of the other stories feel like they could be the same.

I did love the longer Discworld story, The Sea and Little Fishes though. That was a wonderful stand alone Granny Weatherwax story that could have been a subplot in a larger book, but actually works well on its own and made me want to pick up one of the older Discworlds that I haven’t read in a while.

I really enjoyed reading this collection, more-so than I did it’s companion collection, A Slip of the Keyboard, which collects his non-fiction works. Pratchett was never an author lacking confidence, style, or ability. But reading through this collection is an interesting way for a fan of his work – which should of course be everyone – so gain a snapshot of how his writing developed.

Review: Uzumaki

When you’re reading horror, what you want to discover is a book that takes something mundane and everything and manages to make you see in it something new and unsettling that will make you question, if only for a short while, whether those things you’ve always considered safe are truly so.

And so when you find something as deliciously twisted and original as Uzumaki it’s impossible not to love it.

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Uzumaki tells the story of a Kurôzu-cho, a town haunted not by ghosts or monsters, but by a pattern. A Spiral. The books is broken down into episodic stories, each one telling the next stage in the story of how more and more of the population first slowly become obsessed with The Spiral, that pattern that permeates the world. Through the eyes of Kirie Goshima, a teenager seemingly in the centre of it all, we gradually the episodes begin see how something so everyday as a pattern reoccurring in nature can in fact be a sign of something far more ancient and terrifying.

I absolutely loved this story. I’m a total sucker for twisted horror like this, where the everyday world is gradually shifts and reveal that there is no place to hide from the things we thought were safe. Add to this beautifully grotesque artwork that seriously made me double-task several times while I read, and this becomes something you simply cannot put down.

My only quibble was that some of the middle chapters felt a little too stand alone. With some of the stories is was hard to put aside reality when wondering why people in the weren’t reacting more to what was happening to them. Even if it had been something simple like a few lines pointing out that it was strange how little people were reacting, rather than accepting and getting on with their lives.

But as the story continues and all the elements begin to come together this issue fades away. Once you’ve got to the end the way people act makes more sense. I would have just liked the final explanation behind to have been seeded a little earlier to prevent these niggling feelings.

But that minor issue aside I can’t recommend this book enough, and I will be looking for more of Junji Ito’s work as soon as my current reading pile goes down a little bit more.

Review: A Column of Fire

Once more this year I find a book I would normally love cursed by its own quality. Or in this case, the quality of what came before it.

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This is the third book in the Kingsbridge series. Or at least I guess it’s a series now there are three books. The first book, Pillars of the Earth, told the story of the building of Kingsbridge Cathedral, intertwining the lives and relationships of all those involved against the backdrop of the national upheaval of The Anarchy. The second book, World Without End managed to pick up the story a couple of hundred years later, taking us back to the same place and the descendants of the original characters as the Cathedral undergoes further work. It succeeded in bringing together the same elements once again with enough change to create a new story without feeling like it were retreading old ground.

Unfortunately, while A Column of Fire is an amazing book in its own right it doesn’t quite hit the same notes as its predecessors. This time the story sits during the time of the Catholic/Protestant conflicts during the time of Elizabeth the First. However this time the national event take prominence, with the link to Kingsbridge almost coincidental. Again the characters are descendants of the previous casts, but this time the town of Kingsbridge is merely their home town and has no plot of its own, while the characters take part in the national drama.

This doesn’t make the book bad. It’s an excellent piece of historical fiction. But without the local point of view taking prominence it lacks the same grounded charm as its predecessors. I would definitely recommend this book, but if you’re a fan of the previous books don’t expect exactly the same feel this time around.