This book accomplished the impossible...it truly transported me to a different time and place. Such a cliche, to be sure. But, occasionally a book canThis book accomplished the impossible...it truly transported me to a different time and place. Such a cliche, to be sure. But, occasionally a book can honestly bridge the gap and so vividly portray a scene, an era or a geographical setting that I am swallowed up into that world almost completely. The Crimson Petal and the White made this happen for me and, a few year later, I still remember that journey to Victorian London.
The central chraracter is a prostitute called "Sugar" who resides in a brothel run by her mother. Sugar is a woman who has the initiative to make a better place in the world for herself. In her world, options for women are almost non-existent, however, and her main chance in life is to procure a higher step on the social ladder through one of her johns.
Sugar has the ability to transform herself into character and beguiles her customers with her cultural and literary knowledge. She is also able to insinuate herself into their emotions. The other central character in this vast novel is one of Sugar's regular customers who becomes obsessed with her and decides to keep her as his mistress and set her up in a residence of her own. Eventually, he brings her into his own home as a governess to his daughter. Thus, Sugar has transformed herself from a notorious and much sought whore to a respectable member of a posh household.
If this storyline sounds trite or predictible, it will have to be left to the reader to enter the pages of this amazing novel and experience the author's style and robust use of language to set each scene beautifully...and to see that the ending is not quite what one might expect.
And, right...be prepared to read about some sex in this one.
More than sixty years have passed since the world lurched to the end of the cataclysm of the Second World War. Although the 20th century continued toMore than sixty years have passed since the world lurched to the end of the cataclysm of the Second World War. Although the 20th century continued to do its worst and the 21st has been a horror show, WWII remains the epic nightmare of our times. So vast was the battleground, so audacious the brutality, so few corners of the world were spared its lethal touch.
I was born 20 years after the end of the war. WWII still dominated the pop culture of the day. We played Allies and Axis on the playground as kids. Movies, tv shows and books were replete with WWII themes. Diabolical Nazis were still running loose on the screen (and ostensibly in South America) waiting to return and impose a Fourth Reich. Classmates brought WWII battle regalia pilfered from veteran relatives for show and tell. We all heard stories from our parents about rationing, victory gardens, black out curtains and the scarcity of shoes and tires. Our eyes were opened to the horrors of the death camps as we were shown the appalling results of the Final Solution in grainy yet all to clear footage from Belsen.
Twenty or thirty years out, these atrocities were still so close. I believe we could only talk about "The War" (there was really only one that deserved the capital letters) in certain ways. The Germans and the Japanese could only be portrayed as super villians. The Americans and, perhaps even more the RAF could only be portrayed as super heroes.
However, time went by and my generation...the children of the children of The War...grew older and befriended one another. In my own circle of friends I could count someone whose uncle had been in the French Resistance, at least three people whose parents had been children in Nazi Germany (one girl's mother had actually been chosen as "the most Aryan child in the village" and, therefore, was given the dubious honor of giving flowers to Adolf Hitler), kids whose parents had been evacuees in Britain during the Blitz, the children of families who had left Eastern Europe just before the Iron Curtain came down and one Dutch guy whose mother had kneed a Nazi soldier in the groin during the occupation in Holland. I also knew kids who had most of their families wiped out in the camps and could only credit being born at all to the fact that their parents were already "over here" by the 1930s.
This long preamble is pertinent to me because I note that Peter Ho Davies is my age. And he has written a moving and engaging story of a little known WWII venue...Wales. He has, I believe, managed to take a new perspective on the war. Davies has resisted the usual characters. The most sympathetic and likeable (even heroic) character in the book is Karsten, a young German officer. The most despicable character (besides Rudolph Hess) is a British soldier. The most conflicted character is a man without a country, who comes to see this fogging of national identity as a gift.
Davies has shifted the usual rules in the narrative of The War. The action takes place in Wales, a much more neutral setting than the casual reader would expect. The Welsh see the English as invaders, as well as the Germans. Many natives view the conflict as "an English war". The average German foot soldier is portrayed with more sympathy than is the norm. However, the realities of the Nazi regime are not glossed over and the inclusion of Hess underscores the insanity of the architects of the Reich.
The story, itself, involves the convergence of the lives of a Welsh farm girl, a German POW and a German Jew who works for the British military. It is a star-crossed love story and a creative piece of historical fiction. What takes The Welsh Girl into more memorable territory is the author's skill in making the reader identify with all the characters as regular people caught up in harrowing times and forced into tragic situations. The author, obviously, did not live through the era himself. Therefore, he is able to take a more universal view --telling the story from all perspectives in a restrained but powerful style.
This book is fodder for much discussion and would make an intriguing choice for book groups....more
I had a passion for Robert Goddard in the 1990s and recall this as one of my favorites. When this author is on top of his game the results are brilliaI had a passion for Robert Goddard in the 1990s and recall this as one of my favorites. When this author is on top of his game the results are brilliant. Time to go through the back list and see what I have missed from this master of psychological suspense....more
I read this many years ago and it has stayed with me. A tale of how obsessive love can poison a person. Characters who stay with me for decades are raI read this many years ago and it has stayed with me. A tale of how obsessive love can poison a person. Characters who stay with me for decades are rare. These characters did....more
I was born in 1966 -- just a few years after the setting for most of the activity in Kathryn Stockett's very affecting story about the dual worlds ofI was born in 1966 -- just a few years after the setting for most of the activity in Kathryn Stockett's very affecting story about the dual worlds of blacks and whites set on a collision course in the segregated South. It is generally a blow to the ego to start regarding the era of your childhood as 'historical fiction'. I make the modernist mistake of being far too easy on the post-war era and often romanticize it into a stereotype. The Help reminded me why this is a problem. There is plenty from The American Century that is best left behind us--to put it mildly. I am more than ready to view the overt racist cruelties inflicted on "the Help" as history. As ugly as our society can still be today, it is hard to fathom the behavior portrayed in Stockett's book if you came of age, as I did, after the Civil Rights Era.
Growing up in the northern Rust Belt in a progressive family, I never recall a time when it was 'ok' to use racial slurs or to regard members of any race as inferior. But I do remember, on the peripheries of my life, plenty of racial division and mistrust and even hate. The old folks in those days had grown up in the 1920s, an era roiling with prejudice, lynching and views on race that would make Archie Bunker blush with embarrassment. Had they lived in the south, many of these people would have worked their 'colored help' shamelessly and with little regard for personal dignity.
Although I am too young to remember this, when we joined the white exodus to the outer suburbs in 1970, one of the neighborhood boys asked my dad if we were "selling out to n#ggers". The Hough Riots had occurred a couple months after my birth and the entire Cleveland area was still a racial tinder box just waiting for another match to strike conflagration in any neighborhood, black or white. Two years later, in 1968, the Glenville shoot-outs erupted. Behind the suburban bungalow fantasies lay plenty of violence and ugliness.
Still others rose to great heights in this era and stood for change. My husband has a friend whose dad was close friends with a young Presbyterian minister back in the 1960s. This man, still in his twenties, had a wife and young family and a lot to live for. But one day he stood in front of a bulldozer in protest against a segregated school building project. He was a white man. But he had had enough. He was crushed to death by this bulldozer. But people here still remember his act of conscience almost fifty years later.
Recently Dr. Laura Schlessinger has made national news by basically telling an African American caller to "just get over it" when her white husband's friends and family make racist comments around her. We are not finished with racial battling in America yet.
Stockett's characters -- affluent white women in Jackson, Mississippi and their maids -- represent the good, the bad and the ugly in the Jim Crow Era. In Hilly Holbrook we see a truly vile woman who is determined to hang onto her power and maintain the status quo come hell or high tide. She is a fierce segregationist who plays dirty underneath her high society veneer. Skeeter Phelan is her foil -- an awkward intellectual misplaced in the Jackson social milieu. Skeeter's sentimental attachment to her childhood caregiver, a black maid named Constantine, causes her to start asking awkward questions when she returns from college and finds Constantine mysteriously gone.
The maids are given full voice in the unforgettable characters of Aibeleen and Minny. Aibeleen is a big hearted older woman who has spent her entire life caring for white babies and young children. Aibeleen's own son, Treelow, was killed in an accident and this event has deeply scarred Aibeleen more than any other trauma she has experienced. Minny is Aibeleen's close friend and her counterpart in the story. She is brash and bold, devoted to her kids and married to a drinking man who beats her.
The individual lives of Aibeleen, Minny, Hilly and Skeeter become entwined in a complex web of deceit when Skeeter decides to write a book about "the Help" and represent life from their point of view. In so doing, Skeeter is courting disaster and estrangement from her world -- but she is also taking the first steps toward the life she really wants. By agreeing to help Skeeter, in secret, with this forbidden project, Aibeleen discovers her own amazing voice and the power of the written word and starts to find meaning in her life once more.
This is a story about abiding love and vicious hatred and the larger issues of segregation and racism. Mainly, however, it is a compelling story of friendship and how something that simple can promote enormous change in the lives of people.
Needing a break from Real Life this month, I once again dove into a Kate Morton story. Almost exactly one year ago Kate Morton got me through 6 weeksNeeding a break from Real Life this month, I once again dove into a Kate Morton story. Almost exactly one year ago Kate Morton got me through 6 weeks of bronchitis and pleurisy and basic exhaustion. Winter 2013 features cancer in the family, a stressful workload for my spouse, as well as all the usual worries about finances and schedules and getting everyone where they need to be at the right time while simultaneously getting my work done at the office and at home. The 21st Century has lost a bit of its questionable lustre lately and I have basically fled into Kate Morton World.
You know...stately manor homes with dread secrets...whispers from the past...a survivor or two from a distant era who may uncover the truth at the eleventh hour. And lovely pictures of glamorous people from storied eras...
The House at Riverton especially appealed to me because it placed me in my fantasy setting: The Jazz Age. Being Kate Morton, it automatically placed me in my fantasy geographic location: Britain. Beyond that, all I need is a reasonably good story in the hands of a reasonably talented writer. Kate Morton fills the bill superbly.
In short, the troubled Hartford family is introduced through the narrative memories of 98 year old Grace Bradley. She was in service to them at their estate, Riverton, during the heady days of World War I and the glittering 1920s. Young Grace comes from her own small family of secrets and has a special connection to the Hartford estate through her mother, who also had worked at the manor as a domestic during her own youth.
Her duties put her in the path of the three Hartford children, David, Hannah and Emmeline. Grace's life is vastly different from that of the privileged Hartford children, but fate has put her on a parallel course with theirs. Grace grows especially connected with the eldest daughter, Hannah, and, for a decade or so, their paths are entwined, Upstairs/Downstairs style.
Tragic events involving the casualties of war and of love ensue. Grace is haunted throughout her life by the cameo role she played in the drama at Riverton and...eventually...the dark truth is revealed.
This is a great choice for anglophile readers who enjoy Country House dramas and gothic tragedy as well as family sagas. I keep this author for specific times in my life when I need that literary escape and she has not failed me yet!...more
In Snow in August, Pete Hamill reconstructs a time and place that is very dear to me...in a second hand way. The ethnic working class city neighborhooIn Snow in August, Pete Hamill reconstructs a time and place that is very dear to me...in a second hand way. The ethnic working class city neighborhood in post-War America. I knew parts of this tale already; my favorite stories growing up were the ones my dad told me about the Old Neighborhood in those optimistic years after the war but before the realization dawned that the city was dying. Before I knew the man, there was the Boy. I have caught only glimpses of the Boy throughout my life -- the love of baseball and comics and running like the wind through the parks and sand lots and down the city streets; all the buddies with the impossible ethnic surnames shortened to nick names...the priest who first inspired and then disillusioned...the refuge and freedom found in the city library and the desire, eventually, to escape the Old Neighborhood for Someplace Better. Then the mourning for what was and what can never again be.
Hamill's boy protagonist, Michael Devlin, would be my father's age if he were real and alive today. They would have been great friends as city boys. I know for a fact that my dad loved Terry & the Pirates, collected comics and had the same boundless enthusiasm for baseball. I am also well aware of the significance of 'pegged pants'. Michael softened his rough edges through his chance meeting with Rabbi Hirsch and the ensuing friendship they forged over stories and language lessons. My father found his outlet through art and reading. Their 'Silent Generation' is not known for navel gazing prose and self actualization. But theirs is a generation that is as elegiac about their collective past as any other. There is still time to hear their story. But not all the time in the world.
So, I liked this book. The characters seemed plausible to me because I have heard about them many times in many forms and personalities. The inevitable changes in Hamill's Brooklyn working class Irish neighborhood were as traumatic and sad as the changes experienced here in Cleveland and, indeed, in cities across the nation at that time. There were a few golden years after the war when the men came home and there were jobs and the neighborhood celebrated being together again. And then the diaspora to the suburbs began. At first it was a trickle and then it was a stream of people loading up and moving out. And there was a vacuum left by the families and the new prosperity. This vacuum was filled by people of a more desperate nature in some cases. People with less.
As Michael yearns for a father (his was killed in the war), loses his childhood, discovers loyalty and meaning, forges a dangerous friendship, and faces a horrific set of challenges over the course of one terrible yet beautiful summer I, as a reader, am moved. Snow In August reminds me of all that was good and all that was brutal about mid twentieth century American life in the lower classes. Hamill uses the larger backdrop of a world forever changed by the Holocaust and the Atom Bomb to offset a smaller microcosm of a neighborhood and the people who lived in it who were also forever changed by their times.
Pete Hamill's style is workmanlike. He is not 'literary'. He is not clever or ironic or post-modern. Thus, he will not appeal to some readers in my generation who enjoy a more snide or less sentimental take. He tells a good story the way my dad tells a good story. There is color and punch and some elements of magic are present. The heroes are heroes and the villains are rat bastards. Although Hamill hints at gray areas and some aspects of his tale are up for interpretation, the story needs a satisfying ending and it gets one. The ambiguity my generation craves...the anti-hero...the constant reminder that "life is a bitch and then you die" is not Hamill's style. Snow in August, like much that has been gifted to us by my parent's generation, gives the reader hope. Hope that all is not lost and that, every once in awhile, the better side of human nature rises up. (Besides, I tip my glass to Mr. Hamill for also reminding us, in another book, Why Sinatra Matters. Michael Devlin, Rabbi Hirsch and my dad join me in that toast.) ...more
I suppose that, before the Big Question of "Beatles or Stones?" arose, there was probably a similar query about "Fitzgerald or Hemingway?". I have alwI suppose that, before the Big Question of "Beatles or Stones?" arose, there was probably a similar query about "Fitzgerald or Hemingway?". I have always been in the Fitzgerald camp and was never much interested in Papa Hemingway or his work. By the time I was of age to read The Master Works, Hemingway had come to represent the macho-schmacho world of philandering and hard drinking and less than evolved views of women. The bull fighting and the brawling and the Ego and the long stream of discarded wives and lovers were a turn off. By comparison, Fitz just seemed like a tragic drunk undone by a fascinating sociopath.
But part of me will forever attempt to live in the Jazz Age and I remain captivated by almost any story with that setting. And Hemingway was at its very epicenter in Paris between the wars. How could I resist?
The Paris Wife worked well for me because, although I have neutral or negative feelings toward The Man Himself, this story was not his story. This is the story of his first wife, Hadley Richardson, who met and fell in love with Ernest when she was a quiet spinster of 29. Through Hadley's devoted eyes, the reader sees the young Hemingway in a more sympathetic life. Certainly there are foreshadows of the ego and the single minded careerism and selfishness to come. But the lovers meeting in Chicago is sweet enough and you find yourself rooting for the couple. Hadley wants him so badly and loves him so much. As a reader, you want her to have that.
Paris becomes the change agent...the metaphor for the harder edged modernity and cruel experimentation that will usher in a new social era just as Hemingway and his peers are crafting a new form of literature. The Paris of the 1920s is a glittering gem in the imaginations of 21st century dwellers who are responding to a period that seems so much more attractive than our own. This same Paris leads the Hemingways and their friends down a mad cycle of self destruction that we know to be inevitable. Still it is such a let down to see that brief pageant fade into ruins. Few of the literary luminaries and their immediate circle seem to survive it well.
The course of the Hemingway marriage is on a compatible path with that of the Roaring Twenties. Hadley provides the stable foundation for Hem's drive and genius. He loves her and he needs her but his sense of grandiosity and self-interest (and greed) are already planted somewhere within him when he and Hadley first meet.
One would expect that Hadley's voice would grow weaker and more tragic as she begins to see Hemingway slip away into the arms of slicker and more sophisticated friends who recognize the role he will eventually play in the literary world. However, the most gratifying aspect of this story, for me, is that Hadley's voice and spirit actually grow stronger as her life with Hem begins to slip out of control.
This is literary history so it cannot be much of a spoiler to conclude that their love affair ends badly. Happily, Hadley -- 'The Paris Wife' -- is one of the survivors...much more equipped for what the future years hold than her much celebrated ex husband. Hadley's voice is gracious and generally lacking in resentment toward Ernest. As a reader, I appreciated that strength of character and celebrated her eventual success.
The Paris Wife is straightforward and decent quality historic fiction. It has provoked my interest in reading Hem's 'A Moveable Feast' eventually and correcting that omission in my reading history. ...more
One of my fonder memories of growing up in the Redneck Sleepy Hollow was the sometimes lonely walk up my street in the autumn when the leaves of the tOne of my fonder memories of growing up in the Redneck Sleepy Hollow was the sometimes lonely walk up my street in the autumn when the leaves of the thousands of trees that surrounded it were in full regalia but the sky was darkening and bleak. It was both beautiful and terrifying. Being morbid I would often consider the fact that just about anyone could be watching me from behind one of those big old growth trees. If they ever decided to do more than watch...who would see or hear? For whatever reason (probably youthful stupidity) -- this feeling was more drama than fear. Sometimes I would merely enjoy the silence and the view. Other times I would think about a character in one of the era's horror movies (Halloween comes to mind) or I would think about Stephen King.
Because Stephen King has a way with small towns. He loves them...the reader can tell. His small town characters are almost schmaltz. They can be such salt-of-the-earth heroes that they are about as believable as a Frank Capra movie. Still, it is nice. Stephen King needs to craft the amazingly good because he counters it with the rot of the evil. Being me, it is the Bad Small Town that has always captured my imagination.
In my case, I lived in the Bad Small Town. Oh...not like Derry, Maine. There were no clown ghouls pulling children down into drains below. Just an ill match for me. As the race riots and the escalating crime of Cleveland's more urban east side neighborhoods ushered in the seventies my parents decided that it would be good for the family to pack up and move farther out to a bucolic little crossroads on the county line. Hoping for Mayberry we ended up in Dogpatch-- just about the time it was scheduled for a head on collision with New Money.
Not having the bank for one of the faux colonials in the upstart developments we landed on a little street in Old Dogpatch instead. Our neighbors were a collection right out of Stephen King's plot lines. One neighbors son was a charismatic little imp of a five-year-old who broke into our house our first morning there. My mother found him sitting in our kitchen eating our cereal when she came in to fix her morning coffee. His dad was a drunk and his older brother was already in jail. This kid had a big heart. He occasionally shielded me from a neighborhood ass kicking. And, even at age five, he was considerate enough to take his pilfered smokes outside.
The family next door was a veritable Peyton Place. Mom stumbled around the yard with her wine glass by 3:30 in the afternoon. The two younger boys heaved rocks from the driveway at one another's heads with the dim purpose of what country folk call 'eejits". The oldest son was a terrifying hulk with absolutely nothing going on behind his eyes. One day those boys burned a cat to death for sport. Other days were more light hearted. My father was grotesquely fascinated by these 'cretins'. He would occasionally sit with his glass of iced tea in a lawn chair and simply watch...transfixed by their actions. We invented Reality TV back in 1971. We just did not know it.
Finally, one Saturday afternoon my mom, my sister and I came back from a trip to civilisation (the mall located a good 25 minute drive from our house.) "Lock the door!" was my dad's greeting. "That imbecile next door has finally gone stark raving mad. I watched the whole thing! He's running around the woods right now (located behind all of our houses there in Sleepy Hollow) -- screaming and waving an axe!! He thinks the trees are after him." Axe man vanished for awhile. Came back. And blessedly moved away with the rest of the clan late one night without warning...but only after chucking an actual porcelain dinner plate with his half eaten dinner on it into our yard as a parting shot. Five minutes after they pulled out of our life forever, their eyeball searing garage light, which had shined steadily and directly into my parent's bedroom window for the past eight years like some malevolent alien eye, burned out. Exit stage left.
You really can't make this shit up. And thus was life.
I left as soon as I decently could. Nobody in my family questioned why! But I would return at college breaks and then later...after I moved farther into the city, to visit my parents. It was on one of these visits that I had my very own Bad Small Town encounter with a mob of high school kids in the local McDonalds. They did not like me. They did not like my clothing. They did not like my friends. So they surrounded us and started to harass us en masse. Well into my twenties and sporting a new City Mouth I couldn't believe this shit. So I told off the ring leader and marched up to the counter to demand some action from the weary woman at the cash register. In true Derry, Maine form she told me "There's nothing I can do about it. One of them is my son." Incredulous I told my friends that we were going to go visit Barney Fife up the street and file a police report. The Mob followed us into the parking lot and blocked our car. Eventually they grew tired of the abuse and moved on to terrorise another day. It was near midnight when we entered the police station in my 'home town'. Where we were laughed out the door by Officer Fife. Apparently he didn't care much for me either.
Casual malice...condoned (or at least unchecked) by authority. This was the modus operandi in my little burg. I think Stephen King understands that this happens.
So when I read Stephen King as a young teen it was certainly for his signature brand of Name Brand Normal terror. He could unearth the nightmare that lurked just behind the most mundane of surfaces. But I also loved his early stuff for his towns. To this day I am a sucker for the collision of the decent with the twisted in small town life. I love Rod Serling for this. I love David Lynch when he works with this theme. And I love and miss vintage Stephen King.
I can say with no small amount of pleasure that, although King has taken a departure with 11/22/63 into a saga of time travel and historical fiction, he has also remained true to the best of his roots. In this new novel he has returned to Derry...a town who's chilling grip has not let go of me since I last ventured into it back in grad school while reading It. King has balanced the scale through the creation of the Good Small Town of Jodie, Texas. These towns play off of one another throughout the book like two sides of a mirror. (We all have a dark side somewhere, right?)
I am further in love with the time travel element. Time travel fascinates me and when it is done well it makes for some of the most compelling reading I ever experience. As many readers are already aware, King has created a story in which the protagonist accepts a challenge from a dying friend to make a trip back in time to stop the Kennedy assassination in Dallas. In the tradition of a good time travel story, we meet characters, learn their motivations and ponder their future acts for good or for ill. Why does history unfold as it does? Can it be changed? Should it be? Thus the gauntlet is thrown for a page turning extravaganza that is Yes: over the top in places and Yes: implausible in many ways and Yes: descends into King Schmaltz from time to time. But it is Stephen King placing characters in poisonous environments (because the Big D has a malevolent personality too) of varying kinds and letting them loose to see what they can do.
There is a car. There is a dame. There is a hero of sorts. There are the usual sages and sad sacks and vicious small town prudes. There is horror. But there is really more tragedy here. Enjoy the ride. This is very entertaining reading.
I am giving this book 5 stars. Maybe this book is really just a 4 star read. I might even be convinced at a later point that this book is a 3 star reaI am giving this book 5 stars. Maybe this book is really just a 4 star read. I might even be convinced at a later point that this book is a 3 star read. I don't do a lot of 5 star rankings because I usually want to 'leave room' for an even better next effort from the author, or for a future book I will love even more. But today I am feeling generous. Life After Life was a fabulous piece of story telling. Atkinson is a talented writer. I would probably enjoy just about any story she might care to tell, based on what I saw in her ability to set a wide variety of scenes and develop a panorama of characters. -- But the combination of a reincarnation story set in England (London and its environs) during the mid 20th century? An author who can give me that is doing the equivalent of a baker giving Homer Simpson a bag of crack laced doughnuts. I am going to devour that story greedily and in large chunks...mourn the ending and immediately begin to search frantically for my next literary 'fix'.
Life After Life begins with the odd and precarious birth of Ursula Todd. Ursula is born to the Downton-esque Sylvie and Hugh. They are not nobility. Hugh is a middle class banker. They are, however, well off enough to live in a country house with grounds which is called Fox Corner. Ursula nearly dies at birth when she is delivered with the cord wrapped around her throat. The doctor and the midwife are held up by weather. Cold but indomitable Sylvie and the skittish Irish maid, Bridget, see Ursula through her first of many life challenges. The forces of life, you see, wish to kill Ursula. She is born and dies several times over. Accidents happen. Ursula returns to the scene of her birth -- always with a memory of what had gone wrong before. She lives under a perpetual haze of deja vu. She becomes known as an odd and intense child.
Throughout all of her lives there is always the constant of Fox Corner and the family who resides there. Ursula and her parents and siblings. Each lifetime revolves around this same closely connected group of people. Ursula loves her family and wants only to keep them safe and to avoid the accidents and tragedies (WWI, the Spanish Flu Epidemic, WWII/the Blitz) that only she can foresee.
Atkinson uses this plot device to play with the character of Ursula -- who always remains fundamentally the same personality -- but who ends up with very different destinies depending on the choices she makes during each lifetime. It is fascinating to think of one's life running along an infinite array of parallel trajectories...and how our paths are so significantly altered by the people we meet along the way and by the times in which we live.
I found the scenes of the London Blitz to be most affecting. Everyday people went stoically to their cellars night after night to wait it out while bombs dropped over their streets. Survivors waded through rubble and human remains, cleaning and sorting and making due. Without providing too much in the way of spoilers, I must mention that Atkinson takes the story further afield than I initially anticipated and moves some of the story to Germany. This provides a counterweight to the story that is not typically given. The German scenes were some of the most memorable for me.
I did not actually like Ursula so much as a person. I loved Hugh. I was highly entertained by Ursula's bad girl Aunt. I thought sister Pamela was a Good Egg. I would have made different choices in Ursula's shoes. But this is the point. What if you were given do-overs? Ursula gets to try so many paths. I became thoroughly engrossed in her journeys and experiences. This was entertaining and also thought provoking fiction at its best.
Life After Life gave me a clear example of how books can be lifelines. Books have been lifelines for me throughout my life. When I have gone through tragic times and when I have felt my most lonely I have turned to reading as an escape hatch into another world. I spent hours reading Nancy Drew stories when I was 8 years old and I learned that my mom had cancer. I spent more hours reading mysteries and espionage stories home alone on weekends as a gawky and socially awkward teenager. In a book I could always picture myself as a glamourous and rapier witted protagonist. In a book I could always find a friend. It became easy to lose myself in a world that was more exciting and less painful than my own. -- I picked up this book about one week after the death of my mother. This summer I lost my mom and dad to cancer -- (it finally caught up with us)-- two of the most loved people in my world left me within a three week period. I did not know when or how I would be able to feel much of anything. It seemed impossible that I would be able to enjoy a book (or anything else). I was stunned with grief and life felt surreal.
On autopilot I did what I always do: I went to the library and looked for a good book. I found this one. I became completely immersed. I couldn't put it down. I enjoyed it! It took me away to that other world. And it gave me the first evidence that I will go on to enjoy so many more stories. By the middle of this book, I knew I was on my way back to a whole life. -- If a book that can do this doesn't deserve 5 stars from me, then I guess nothing ever will.
I would recommend this book as a "3 to 5 star read' for people who love historical fiction with a touch of magic. Kate Atkinson is someone I am immediately adding to my 'Must Read Authors' short list.
This was a charming little book and a very quick read. I finished it awhile ago (read it in less than a week, even with my hectic schedule) and am jusThis was a charming little book and a very quick read. I finished it awhile ago (read it in less than a week, even with my hectic schedule) and am just now getting around to posting about it. There are some familiar plot points in this haunted house story...a young Victorian lady who is left alone in the world when her loving father catches his death of a chill, rather literally, and dies after venturing out in inclement weather to hear Charles Dickens give a lecture. Eliza, unsettled after the death of her last parent, must find a way to begin anew. Despite her position at a girl's school in London, Eliza decides, impetuously, to answer an ad for a governess. Her inquiry is promptly responded to and she is hired.
Her new position takes her to Norfolk and the brooding walls of Gaudlin Hall...but not before a series of bizarre and unsettling events occur at the train station in Gaudlin. Eliza meets a friendly enough couple who assist her when she nearly steps into the path of a train, shrouded in the almost preternatural fog that surrounds the platform. However, upon admitting to her new friends that her destination is Gaudlin Hall, Eliza notices a sudden chill in their reaction to her...
Eliza is also nearly run down by a woman who is fleeing onto the outgoing train as if her life depends upon it. There is something familiar in the letters "H B" which are monogrammed on the woman's valise, but Eliza cannot quite determine what detail is tugging at the back of her mind.
Thus, she meets the surly driver who is sent to take her Gaudlin and proceeds with the final leg of her somewhat treacherous journey. Upon arrival at the manor, Eliza is troubled to learn that her two young charges appear to be left alone to greet her. Isabel and Eustace attempt to settle Eliza into her new quarters at the hall, but their parents are nowhere to be found and Eliza's questions are only half answered.
Soon Eliza realizes that they are not, indeed, alone in this house, but that the house is filled with forces all its own. Some of these forces are malevolent and wish Eliza great harm. In the spirit of the fortitude shown by Jane Eyre while in the company of the forbidding Mr Rochester, Eliza does not flee. Instead she takes it upon herself to learn the secrets of Gaudlin Hall, of which there are many and dark. We, the reader, are in for a gothic treat as we accompany Eliza on her quest to know the truth behind the tragic Westfield family.
The Hundred Year House was a compelling read populated with people I did not like. Although the characters, in many ways, combined to form an assholeThe Hundred Year House was a compelling read populated with people I did not like. Although the characters, in many ways, combined to form an asshole convention, I was soon rapidly turning pages to learn how their stories would intertwine over the course of decades. In this way, the story reminded me of Gone Girl -- a tale of unpleasant people both perpetrating and enduring unpleasant things at a master level.
The inhabitants of Laurelfield, (the Hundred Year House and former artist's colony), are all haunted in various ways. Some are haunted by their pasts (the members of the troubled DeVohr family) and others are haunted by their present inability to reach their goals. The House seems to lend a feeling of ennui and depression to some of the residents (Case and Zee) -- and a certain manic-ism to others (Miriam, Eddie Parfitt, and, to a degree, Doug). The House harbors many secrets about many of the troubled souls who have established residency within it's walls over the years. Will the house reveal its secrets?
Doug sets out to uncover the Laurelfield archives and, in the process, learns more about the fates of the Devohr family. Others secrets about the artists from the Colony years are not revealed to Doug. However, we as readers become privy to them in a unique and twisty plot.
I would say more about this well crafted suspense story...but I have to jump in the car and drive to Pittsburgh. I am in the midst of a another good one I hope to read in the hotel later tonight.
In the meantime, readers who might enjoy a family saga filled with mysterious surprises would do well to begin here....more
After the end of The Great War, the genteel class in England felt a great shift beneath their well heeled feet. Society was irrevocably changed by theAfter the end of The Great War, the genteel class in England felt a great shift beneath their well heeled feet. Society was irrevocably changed by the amazing cost of the war, in blood and in treasure. Those who returned from the trenches were often much altered, by shell shock or by the sense that nothing much mattered after you have spent your youth bathed in the blood of your fellow men. That ruthlessly lovely dreamland of Downton Abbey and Upstairs/Downstairs that we 21st century types love to romance ourselves with was crumbling along with the grand houses that populated its landscape.
Sarah Waters, once again, takes her finely honed writing skills into the landscape of a house and the sad family who inhabits it. The setting could not be more attractive to This Reviewer...it is a feast of 1920s delicacies! A once gracious home in a 'good' neighborhood is slowly sinking into disrepair. The widow Wray and her headstrong spinster daughter, Frances, now live there alone after the death of both sons in the war and the death of Mr Wray by the anxieties and despair of this new age.
The elder Mrs Wray plays hard at ignoring the plight their small female household has descended into after the late Mr Wray frittered away the money on poor investments. There is no money for staff, so it is up to Frances to see to the house. Some of my favorite scenes in the story were those of Frances setting her back to one domestic chore or another -- the better to picture the house in my mind's eye. (I often delude myself that I would enjoy housekeeping so much more if there was a grander house to keep. I am also positive that this is bullshit. I'd still find it a bore. But a girl can dream...) But my enjoyment of retro upper crust housing stock is a well that never runs dry and Waters does a fine job with her houses.
The people who populate them are also of interest. The character of Frances is prickly, dissatisfied but also broken. She once dreamed of a love of her own and a bohemian life in London. Alas, but her love was that of the Sapphic variety (to parse a more Edwardian phrase) and the hint of the affair was enough to scandalize her mother and, quite possibly, send her father to a premature demise.
Frances is cowed. She shoulders the burden of the scrubbing and wiping and hauling and penny pinching and devotes herself to shielding her mother from the worst of their genteel poverty. Thus the story begins with a declasse solution: that of taking in 'paying guests' to help meet the budget demands of their household. Taking in renters is the first truly tangible bit of evidence that the Wrays have, indeed, 'slipped'. It is distasteful business. But mother and daughter prepare to meet their new lodgers with characteristic British stiff upper lip.
The lodgers are Len and Lil (short for Lilian) Barber -- members of the Clerk Class. They are suspect and they arrive much too noisily. It is enough to give one vapors. But needs must. Mrs Wray retires early. Frances feels the distaste of her home being invaded by others.
Feeling the need to escape, Frances soon goes to visit her former love, Christina, who has achieved her bohemian life without Frances, and instead shares a flat with a new partner -- school mistress, Stevie. Upon hearing of Frances's new living arrangement with boarders upstairs, the women (all of 'good homes' though scandalous themselves) trade jokes at the Barbers expense and Stevie warns Frances of the underlying viciousness and poor breeding of the Clerk Class. Although the class system is beginning to crumble, it will die hard in the minds of most of the Right Sort of People...
Yet, as the pages turn and the description of Lil's frocks and her decorating style meld seamlessly into the building of her character, we begin to wonder what else might be happening behind the shopgirl facade. And Frances becomes, at first intrigued, and a bit later, attracted. A tenuous friendship between the two women begins as Lil is left alone each day when her husband ventures out to his insurance business and Frances is abandoned to the housecleaning by her mother (who prefers to visit the vicar or the neighbors).
As Frances grows closer to Lil, she grows more and more uneasy with the husband, Len. Len always seems to be there, crowding into her kitchen, smoking in the garden, or coming and going up the stairs. She feels that all is not as it should be in the Barber marriage. She is easily annoyed by his presence.
And, of course, this all ends with an admission of attraction -- and later -- of love. But this is nowhere near the end of the story (or much of a spoiler). It is this admission and the tentative yet dangerous steps taken to a second shot at happiness that take Frances down a much darker path than she ever could foresee.
The Paying Guests is a first class read for Anglophiles, for the dreamers who want to live in 1924, for any reader who gets enjoys getting caught up in a good character driven historical fiction/crime story that will keep one rapidly turning pages to the very last paragraph....more