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

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, by Jamie Ford

So here’s a book I was probably never going to read, because everyone and their brother was fawning over it when it came out a couple years ago and I only go for those massively loved books if they sound like something I’d read anyway (see The Night Circus). And while I have a soft spot for Holocaust books, I have somehow never gotten into other World War II books in the same way. But perhaps this will change, because this was a pretty good book!

Hotel, as I will call it because dang, long title, is about a dude who hears about a trove of unclaimed stuff left after the forced removal of Japanese Americans from Seattle during “the war years” and is like, “Hey, I know a person who left her stuff there! I’mma go looking for a specific thing that might be there, but also I’ll take some time to prove to my estranged son that I have layers and maybe also stop acting like my father while I’m at it.”

Hmm. That sounds pretty bad. But for all that I love frame stories, I really prefer the frame to be around the story, not all up in it (see The Madonnas of Leningrad), and so this outer story with the dad and the son and the dead wife was pretty meh to me.

What I really enjoyed was the past story, with Our Dude, Henry, growing up Chinese and American at the same time and dealing with all of that drama and then also dealing with having a Japanese best friend (not good for Chinese or American kids at the time) and watching how her life goes terribly and unfixably wrong. There’s so much truth and sadness to Henry’s life at a new, white school — the loss of his old friends, the rejection by his new classmates, his parents’ pride in the scholarship that has him slinging food in the cafeteria every day, his attachment to the only other person who might understand. It’s quite beautiful.

I wish the whole of the book had felt that way; there was a lot of the frame story that was less than truthful and often boringly predictable. But not offensively so, and I was so excited to get back to kid Henry’s story that it didn’t bother me terribly much.

I’m not sure I would ever have picked this book up were it not for my book club, and I’m not sure I would go recommend this book to my past self without the reward of the book club, but I am glad that I read it and I hope it opens up a whole new section of war stories for me.

Recommendation: For fans of war stories and coming-of-age stories, and also possibly people who like jazz music.

Rating: 7/10