Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson

Life After LifeI’ve been meaning to read Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie mysteries for a long time now, and even more so after watching the BBC adaptation with Jason Isaacs. Of course, I now have to wait until I forget what happened in said adaptation before I can read the books, so I’ll get around to them… someday.

So I was pleased to see that this book has no ties to that series and even more pleased when I read the description and found out that the protagonist of this book would live and die and live again and die again and live some more etc. It sounded right up my brain-explodey alley.

But at first, I was disappointed. The books opens with a bang, literally, with our protagonist, Ursula, possibly killing probably Hitler but dying before she or we can find out. Then we pop back to the moment of Ursula’s birth, shortly after which she dies. Then we go back again, and this time she lives a little longer before another untimely death. It takes a little while for Ursula to live even into adulthood, and the things that happen to her while she’s living are really kind of boring, and do not live up to that great start.

But then it gets a heck of a lot better. It starts getting awesome when Ursula begins to feel a bit of déja vu and helps prevent her own death and the death of others. Around the time that Ursula starts living into World War II, the story gets a little more urgent, with the threat of death around every London corner. Things also get interesting because we can see different pieces of previous lives popping into the current ones, with good and also terrible results.

And then at like ten pages from the end one little sentence makes so many other sentences in the book make so much more sense and I vow to read everything Atkinson ever decides to write, because damn.

I’ve seen a lot of comparisons of this story to Groundhog Day, which is probably the easiest analogy but certainly not a perfect one. I think the best thing that Atkinson does with the story is to give Ursula only a little bit of agency in changing her life — a sense that something is about to happen or that something is very wrong, but no real knowledge of what will occur or how to fix it. And where Bill Murray in the end created a more or less perfect day, things don’t wrap up quite so neatly for Ursula, which is fine by me.

Recommendation: If you have the hours required to read this 500-page book, and the patience required to wait for it to come together, you should probably read this.

Rating: 9/10

The Madness Underneath, by Maureen Johnson

The Madness UnderneathAbout a year ago I read and liked the heck out of Maureen Johnson’s The Name of the Star, so when I heard this sequel was coming out I put it on hold at the library as soon as it showed up in the catalog. And then I even read it right after I got it! That’s almost unprecedented.

And it was as delightful as expected, though it unfortunately suffers from Second Book in a Series Syndrome, which is to say that if you read this book by itself you would be like, uh, okay, but having read the first and knowing there’s a third you’re like, okay!

The story picks up a couple of weeks after the last book, with Rory recuperating from all the crazy back in Brighton with her parents and unsuccessfully attending therapy on account of her truth sounds like crazy. She just wants to go back to school, but when her therapist unexpectedly says that she can and she does, she realizes that maybe not doing any schoolwork for a couple weeks right before the end of term was not the best idea.

So she’s dealing with the crush of school and exams, and also the fact that she can… do that thing she does, and the related fact that she was brought back to London for a reason, and the other related fact that some new mysterious murders are going on and so is it any wonder that things go a little bit not according to plan?

I, as always, enjoyed Maureen Johnson’s writing and her accurate portrayal of a stressed-out teenager. I was also verrrry intrigued by how she ended this book, and am eager to see how this plays out in the next book. I just feel like maybe this book could have been compressed and that intriguing thing could have been the thrust of this story, or alternately that the book could have taken place over a longer timespan and we could have seen more of Rory’s schooltime woes (and that perhaps she could have spent more time trying to fix them?).

Recommendation: If you liked the first book, read this one, but maybe wait until closer to the next book’s release, because seriously I want to know what’s going to happen here!

Rating: 7/10

Good Omens, by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

Good OmensHee. Teehee. Hehehehehe.

This book, it is delightful. I was hooked from the prologue, which begins with “It was a nice day,” ends with, “It was going to be a dark and stormy night,” and has many humorous sentences in between. By a few pages later, I was texting the friend who had recommended it to me, saying, “I am on page 12 of Good Omens and I may already be in love with it.”

And love it I do. It reminded me very much of the only other Terry Pratchett I’ve read (which was also amazing), but it still felt fairly Gaiman-y to me even though I can’t for the life of me think of a purely funny thing that I’ve read of Gaiman’s. Maybe it’s the pacing of the story that does it? I don’t know. It’s not important.

What’s important is that this book is a, uh, let’s say a divine comedy of errors? Because the two main protagonist-types are Crowley and Aziraphale, the former the apocryphal serpent of Eden and the latter Eden’s angel guardian. One fights for the evil side, one for the good, but both of them spend a lot of time hanging out on Earth, so when the evil side gives humans eleven years to enjoy their universe Aziraphale and Crowley find themselves working together to see if they can’t maybe postpone that end of the world thing a little while.

Their plan is to keep an eye on the Antichrist and get him to make appropriate world-saving decisions, but of course it turns out that they’re keeping an eye on the wrong kid and with just a few days left in the world they have to go find the right one. Others are looking for the child, too, including the Four “Apocalyptic Horsepersons” and an occultist following the predictions left by her always-correct-even-if-you-don’t-know-it-until-later ancestor.

Although there is this plotline — Save the Antichrist, Save the World — most of the story dances around it, focusing instead on how the different characters interact with each other, what the meanings of “good” and “evil” really are, and how our human world came to be so immensely screwed up. And as I may have mentioned, it’s really all about the writing, and passages like the following:

“God does not play dice with the universe; He plays an ineffable game of His own devising, which might be compared, from the perspective of any of the other players, to being involved in an obscure and complex version of poker in a pitch-dark room, with blank cards, for infinite stakes, with a Dealer who won’t tell you the rules, and who smiles all the time.”

The ending goes on a bit long, and it takes rather a lot of contrivance to get there (but how else would you?), but I was still quite satisfied and mostly I plan to remember those delightful parts anyway.

Although I read about half of it in print, I did end up listening to the whole thing on a quick road trip, and I can say that the audiobook narrator is a perfect fit for the book. Martin Jarvis has a lot of fun making up voices for the large number of characters and imbues them with the incredulity required to live in this very strange universe. If you need a good listen, check this out.

Recommendation: For lovers of Gaiman, Pratchett, Fforde, and other fine masters of British humor, or really just anyone who needs a laugh.

Rating: 9/10

The Name of the Star, by Maureen Johnson

The Name of the StarOkay, so, I love me some Maureen Johnson on the Twitters, and I’ve liked me some stories written by Maureen Johnson, and so when MJ started shilling this book on her twitter feed, I was like, well, I guess I’ll check that out. If I had known how much I’d adore this book, I’d have been like, “OMG give me pre-order signed copy with presents now!” Oh, hindsight, for you are 20/20.

For those not residing in a jar (this is a Twitter MJ reference), The Name of the Star is a mystery story set in present-day London and featuring a Jack the Ripper copycat killer, which, I somehow had not realized how horrifyingly brutal Mr. the Ripper was and so let me just tell you right now that there will be stabbing and disembowelment and kidneys sent via post. Not too much, and only briefly, but now you are prepared.

Anyway, the story follows Rory, an American girl spending her senior year at a boarding school in London, not far from the Ripper’s hunting grounds. Once the copycat starts his bit up, the school gets a little lockdown-y, but Rory and her roommate sneak out on a murder night to watch the proceedings from the roof of the boys’ dorm (house? whatever) with Rory’s crush. On the way back to their room, Rory has a little chat with a super creeper face who happens to be hanging around their dorm, and then the next morning it turns out that there’s a dead body on school grounds and that that creeper was probably totally the killer. Eep!

And then there’s this twist that I wasn’t expecting and that I disliked and I was like, maybe I’m not going to like this book after all and maybe I should just stop reading but I was so intrigued by how they were going to get the SCF and then the twist just totally stopped bothering me and now I kind of like it a lot, because I think Johnson did a superb job of keeping the twist grounded in reality. Well, as much as one can, I suppose.

I’m not quite sure what it is about this book that I love, as opposed to the moderate to strong like I’ve had for her other stories I’ve read. I guess I just really liked Rory, who’s a smart kid that I would totally have hung out with in high school, and I liked the mystery and serial killer aspects, and I liked that even though I could see some things coming from pages away, the reveals were never exactly what I expected.

Now to just wait a year for the next book to come out! I’ll just be over here, twiddling my thumbs, impatiently…

Recommendation: For fans of mysteries and serial killers and boarding schools and stories that veer slightly out of the realm of reality.

Rating: 9/10