- Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
While most reviews for Life were definitely positive, the reviews among my friends (book-review-friends and in-real-life-friends alike) were mixed and largely mediocre. But I love Atkinson and was still in a quiet-spell for reviews so I took a chance. My own take -- fine, even good, but not great.
This book presents the unique lives of Ursula Todd. After a brief preface, we watch in on a birth only to find the child strangled by the umbilical cord. The next chapter is the first of many do-overs, this time she lives, but not for long. In the subsequent chapters, small variations make all the difference in Ursula's survival and, eventually (after a series of life-or-death matters), in her path. Ursula is born in England just prior to WWI and while (when she lives long enough, of course) that conflict shapes some of her earliest years, she really grows up during the period between the wars ans it is the WWII chapters that are the book's most dramatic. There are many themes swirling about from the nature of time, to the purpose of life, to the similarities and differences between bitter enemies.
As several of my friends commented, this book would have been well-served by sharper editing. I understand some of her reasons, but Atkinson could have lost quite a number of pages and ended up with a piece that was better for it. That caused it to simply drag and also made for more than a few times when I back-pedaled through pages trying to recall a missed detail. Still, there were some great characters, both major and minor. I was particularly interested in how. and I'm trying to avoid spoilers, a sexual moment shaped the course of Ursula's life (I could see that alone supporting its own work!). I also really enjoyed the portrait of WWII from a perspective I've only seen a handful of times despite having read a good deal of historical fiction set in the time-frame And I'd be remiss not to praise Atkinson's prose.
So, I end at a 3.5 star rating (of 5) that I'll round up to 4 on one site and 3 on another since two force me to pick but I am really feeling quite firm on the half. You need patience, an interest in detail, and a willingness to re-read the same moment again (though, eventually, you do progress enough that it stops starting from birth each time...honestly, at one point, I feared that might never occur). Rewards: language, character, moments of humor, and thought-provoking-issues aplenty. Yes, this has been done in modern cinema, more than once, but this is certainly a more literary turn for the tale of moments tried and re-tried.
- The Canterbury Sisters by Kim Wright
This book appeared on some recent list of books for 30-something women and I was intrigued. Not only did I study the Canterbury Tales in AP English in high school, I took an entire Chaucer course in college that focused on the Tales plus an additional class dealing with medieval literature and art that also touched on Chaucer's works. That is what drew me in, but the read proved to be rather dissatisfying.
Sisters opens on Che, a wine critic who recently lost her (rather eccentric, to put it mildly) mother and was left by her longtime boyfriend. Che's mother leaves her with a final task, to spread her ashes in Canterbury, a request that includes an implicit direction to walk the famous trail. Che ends up doing so with a group of women who decide to spend the trip sharing tales of love. And, of course, there are a few (mis)adventures along the way.
I think I expected too much here. I knew I was wading into a bit of "chick-lit"-land and I was okay with that. The truth is, however, it takes a rare piece of "chick-lit" to truly capture me and to become more than just mind candy. I think I was more interested in Che's reaction to a few wines than any of the characters themselves. That said, it did pass the time and it wasn't bad, it just wasn't good (okay, the ending was pretty bad) and I'd hoped for more. Perhaps my own fault to a degree, but I can't go over 3 stars and would be tempted to say 2.5 if not for small moments and because a lot of my opinion is tainted by the odd turn towards the end of the journey.