Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Life After Life

           Kate Atkinson has had a long and distinguished career but I confess this is the first book of hers I’ve read, and it was suggested by a member of my book club. I had little or no expectation going into this book, but Life after Life took me for a loop, doing some utterly ambitious things I’ve never seen attempted before. The premise is that Ursula Todd gets to restart her life every time she dies, going back to the birth and starting over. The degree of ingenuity the author brings to these restarts, keeping certain details and subtly changing others, was a magnificent performance of writerly skill. I was impressed. And Ursula Todd was, in places, an interesting character. However I don’t know that any writerly skill can overcome the inherent challenge—which is how it’s nearly impossible to care about the fate of a character who keeps dying. You tend to develop a so-what attitude whenever there’s anything at stake. So what if it goes bad and she dies—again.
            By far the longest and strongest section of the book was set during the Blitz of London, which Ms. Atkinson brings to life more vividly than almost any other account I’ve read. It even rivals Connie Willis, who spends thousands of pages there. But it’s my own humble opinion that the book should have climaxed there. It felt like the climax. But then there was a whole other hundred pages in which Ursula’s next life takes her to Germany to knock off Hitler, which I can tell you without it being a spoiler because it’s the prologue to the book. To me that section just didn’t ring nearly as true or sound, in part because the rest of the book is so thoroughly English, and Ursula herself is so very English. The whole alternate German life seemed out of character for both her and the novel.
            I have a few other quibbles, mainly with the character of Ursula’s mother, who changes from life to life. She’s a sympathetic character at the opening and then modulates into one you have to loathe, which is all fine if you know why. But the book only hints at things—such as a possible affair we hear of briefly and never again—and doesn’t explore them. It became frustrating to me. And then my bigger quibble is the same one other reviewers have had, which is that the book is long and has a virtuoso gloss, but it doesn’t add up to a moving experience. There’s the strong sense of an empty vessel. Perhaps the same so-what attitude that we develop for Ursula’s fate ends up applying to the novel as a whole—we don’t have enough to care about.
            That said, I’m curious about her detective novels and I’m planning to read the first of her Jackson Brodie series. Kate Atkinson certainly has a big toolbox of writerly craft!

Sunday, November 29, 2015

The Tilted World

            There are some lovely aspects to this historical novel by Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly. I enjoyed the premise of a federal agent during prohibition falling for the best moonshine maker in the region. I liked the setting and the sense of the impending flood of 1927 – the impetus for the climax. The details were gritty and solid and did a fine job evoking the era of Prohibition on the Mississippi. Certainly it was a quick and pleasant read and I enjoyed the finely-crafted language.
   The poetry in the novel no doubt belongs to Beth Ann Fennelly, the poet co-author. To my taste, though, there’s an inherent difficulty in using language that’s so clearly out of the realm of most of us, and especially of federal agent and bootleggers. It can work and in places it does, but in other places the voice of the poetry became for me a distraction, an obstacle to being completely in the world of the characters. I enjoyed it for the love of words, which were certainly quite beautiful, but at the same time regretted I couldn’t immerse more fully in the world of the story. The language jumped out as not belonging to the world of the story, making it difficult to forget or ignore the well-crafted sentences that were telling it.
            Thus I would recommend this book for those of us who like a more ‘literary’ take on an action story—and are willing to trade some degree of immersion for the pleasure of a well-turned phrase.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The Doomsday Book

I've never been much of a fantasy reader, but a friend recommended Connie Willis as someone I might like and I thought to take a peek. She's won the Hugo and Nebula awards more times than almost anyone else, so she must be doing something right. I started with the Doomsday Book from 1992, which won the Hugo and kicks off a long series. And I have to say, the Doomsday Book is nothing if not different. It's an odd cross between a cozy mystery - it has that feel to it - and a historical adventure, all tied together by the fantastical rules that govern time travel within the story. 
It’s a long book and I have to confess I thought the middle sagged, as I had trouble pushing through it. Also I didn’t care for the harried way all the characters in Oxford – in the year 2050 – rushed around in a constant panic. Sure they had problems, but some of them were life-threatening and others were about sweaters and bell concerts (hence the cozy mystery feel) and they seemed to induce equivalent frenzy. I began to feel harried myself!
 But then, in that way that some books do and I really admired in this one, the ending pulled together all the pieces and uplifted the story to something moving. The protagonist Kivrin is quite a trooper and Ms. Willis pulls off a real sense of connection between her and the Oxford professor who sends her back to the Middle Ages via time travel. Which, as you might imagine, doesn't go so well.
What I liked best in the ending was the refreshing nature of the bond between a professor and a student, not a romance or even a typical friendship. It was a good read and I went on to read the first in her two-book series about time travel back to the Blitz. I’ll post more when I’ve read the second one!

Friday, March 27, 2015

Come get a book signed next Saturday the 4th!

Haymaker Card and Gift will host a book signing for two new books by local authors on Saturday April 4th from 11 AM  until 1PM.

Hardwick author, Jodi Lew-Smith has written an action packed historical adventure fiction book set in 1810 USA. Her main character is a self-sufficient “nose-to-the-grindstone” never-give-up female inventor in a time few young women stepped outside the home and hearth.  Lew-Smith has already won several awards in the literary world for this book.  Top 10 on my list for this year!

Tim Hayes, now of Johnson Vermont, a nationally recognized Natural Horsemanship Clinician.  Has written a non-fiction book, Riding Home, the Power of Horses to Heal.  This is a must have for anyone who wants to understand the special relationship that can develop between horse and person.

Haymaker in historic downtown Morrisville is pleased to present these two fine authors and their books.  We will have 3 gift basket door prizes for those who attend the signing.

Friday, March 6, 2015

All the Light We Cannot See

I'm very late to the game of recommending this book, but in case you haven't heard of Anthony Doerr's new book, put it on your reading list right now.

What most impressed me about this book was Doerr's incredible patience in spinning this tale. He told it with little short chapters that each imparted a tiny piece of a larger puzzle, with a time sequence that flowed back and forth across present, past, and further past. There was something as precise in his technique as the careful craftsmanship of the model towns built by a father for his blind daughter in the story. There was something at once lavish and spare about the style, for the book as a whole provided a luxurious lake of detail, but did it one little thimbleful at a time.

I found the technique refreshing and thought it worked especially well for this story, which tells of a blind French girl and a radio-loving German boy whose paths eventually wind together just as the tides of the war turn in August of 1944. It's lovingly written and full of delightful small touches. I hear it took many years to write and I believe it!