Friday, July 3, 2015

Horror Fiction: Within These Walls by Ania Ahlborn

It's been a good long while since I have been able to cover a book that falls into the category of horror fiction, and Ania Ahlborn's Within These Walls seemed like the perfect candidate. The synopsis promised a haunted house, ghosts, and a mysterious cult leader. And with everything that went on in the book, I wouldn't have been surprised if there was also an Indian burial ground and creepy possessed children.

The Situation: Lucas Graham hasn't published a successful book in years. So when Jeffrey Halcomb, a man who was accused of killing a woman and her baby, while also convincing nine others to kill themselves, reaches out to him and offers him the story subject he has been waiting for, he naturally jumps at the opportunity. After having been arrested in 1983, Halcomb has kept completely silent about what happened in the house in Pier Pointe, Washington. He is willing to give Lucas, and only Lucas, an interview, but in order to receive something every media outlet and true crime writer has wanted, Lucas must stay in the very house where Halcomb committed his crimes. His wife, Caroline, is against uprooting the family from New York and moving halfway across the country, even if it is for the writing opportunity of a life time. Of course, she has no idea he already said yes.

The Problem: Before Lucas even introduces the idea of living in a former murder house in order to get the story of what really happened there, his relationship with his wife was already strained. And the one with his preteen daughter, Virginia, isn't much better. While Lucas and Virginia pack up to head to Washington, Caroline gets ready for a trip to Italy, with the man that Lucas knows she is cheating on him with. And while he is glad to have his daughter along with him and possibly a chance to fix whatever is broken between them, Lucas worries about his daughter finding out the real reason they are going to Seattle, and what really happened in the house they are now staying in. As time moves on, and Lucas' dream opportunity slowly turns into a nightmare, he still manages to hold on to the quickly fading hope that he'll get the story that will save his career. Meanwhile, Virginia is able to find out all about the house and Jeffrey Halcomb on her own, leading to her own side project. But with strange things beginning to happen in and around the house, it is clear that whatever motives they each may have for this trip are secondary to someone else's.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a horror novel set partly in modern day, and partly in the early 1980s. For the most part, the story follows Lucas and Virginia as they coexist in the house in Pier Pointe. But the entire story of what happened back in 1983 is also revealed slowly throughout the book, leading up to the day of the gruesome murder/suicides. A big part of both stories is the charming and enigmatic cult leader Jeffrey Halcomb, a man who managed to gather a following out of lost, addicted, or abandoned runaways and convince them that he is little less than a god. At first glance the group looks like a band of traveling hippies who never stay in one place too long and refuse to get real jobs, while operating out of the belief that the individual is nothing and that personal sacrifices are made for the good of the group. Halcomb makes the young recruits feel special; assures them they are not alone; and offers them safety and love, something they are all too eager to except. But his darker more sinister objective soon surfaces, and the more committed members of the group remain undeterred and still believe in their leader. It is an eerie look at what one person can convince someone else to do by saying the right words and being attractive enough. And it is the kind of terrible parenting that Lucas and Caroline offer up to their daughter Virginia that cause otherwise grounded people to follow someone like Halcomb.  

My Verdict: I am all about horror stories that are sufficiently terrifying without being crazy bloody. And this book fits that perfectly. Having people live in a haunted house where an awful murder and mysterious suicides took place is creepy enough. Simultaneously tell the story of a charming cult leader who seems to be able to get pretty much anyone to do what he wants, and you've got more than just a ghost story. Jeffrey Halcomb is the ultimate villain, pulling strings that people don't even realize are being pulled, including his most devoted followers. It's the kind of story that makes you wonder if Halcomb is really the charming and manipulative, or are the people he picks that broken and desperate? Maybe it is a little bit of column A, and a little bit of column B. Either way, it is an unnerving tale and one that makes you ask yourself how far you would be willing to go to please someone with an attractive personality, offering you everything you've always wanted. 

Favorite Moment: I'm not sure I can pick a favorite moment. Everything in this book is incredibly dark and there isn't one part that stood out that I can say I really loved.

Favorite Character: Again, I don't think I can pick anyone. Everyone in this book is either crazy, annoyingly desperate, or just stupid...or some combination of all three. Halcomb convinces people to do ridiculous things so easily. And just when it starts to look like someone has a will of their own, it is either too late, or the easily fold under the slightest pressure.

Recommended Reading: Marisha Pessl's Night Film follows another writer as he is trying to uncover the true story behind a famous director of cult classic horror movies after the mysterious death of the director's daughter. There are no ghosts, but there is a (seemingly) haunted house and many "followers" of the famed director and his movies.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Young Adult Fiction: Saint Anything by Sarah Dessen

Any regular readers out there had to know this was coming. Today I am covering Saint Anything, the newest release from Sarah Dessen. I was late to the Dessen game when I covered both What Happened to Goodbye and The Moon and More about two years ago. Since then, I have been slowly collecting Dessen's other books and reading them apart from this blog. Needless to say, I was excited to get my hands on her latest release and talk about it here.

The Situation: Sydney Stanford feels invisible. At first she was used to simply being in her brother Peyton's incredibly charming and attractive shadow. But as he began to get in trouble, Peyton still continued to be the family's focus, but also the source of their stress and concern. His most recent accident has led to serious jail time, and left a young boy permanently disabled. Even with her brother locked away, Sydney still remains invisible as most of her mother's efforts go towards staying in contact with Peyton and knowing how he is doing, while her father seems to just be trying to stay away, as if in an effort to not face what is happening with is son. Unfortunately, this also means not having much face-to-face time with his daughter.

The Problem: When money gets tight due to the legal fees, Sydney decides on her own to give up her costly private school education at Perkins Day and transfers to Jackson High School instead. This isn't really a problem as Sydney actually makes new friends, two of which are Layla and her older brother, Mac. Layla is actually instrumental in keeping Ames, a very creepy friend of Peyton's, at bay, as he clearly has designs on Sydney. And Mac is a just a great guy who seems to actually see Sydney, something she isn't used to. Unfortunately, her parents still remain preoccupied with her brother, and don't understand her protestations about being alone with Ames. Also, Sydney feels like she is the only one who feels guilty about poor David Ibarra, the young boy Peyton left disabled and wheelchair bound, and that guilt is eating her alive. It seems things are bad enough because of what her brother has done, but Sydney still has plenty of trials ahead, and is hoping her new friends can help see her through. 

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult novel told from the point of view of a young girl with an older brother who has been in and out of trouble. His most recent crime has been drinking and driving, and ended with him striking a young boy and leaving him in a wheelchair. While the most the reader can get from Peyton is the occasional phone call, it is clear that Sydney is riddled with guilt, even though that accident had nothing to do with her. Everyone in the family is dealing with this in their own way. Sydney's mom seems intent on ignoring the fact that her son was at fault, something that infuriates her daughter, while her dad seems to want to ignore everything. So Sydney continues to feel invisible until she meets the Chatham family. Dessen has admitted that Sydney's feelings of invisibility are somewhat reminiscent of how she felt as a teen. And in the dedication, Dessen says this book is for the "invisible girls," as well as her readers. Much like in her other books, Dessen has touched on something that is important to many teens and that many will be able to relate to.

My Verdict: I was right to be excited about this book. We have all felt the disappointment of reading a sub-par book by a favorite author, especially after waiting so expectantly for it to come out. That did not happen here. And while I won't say that Saint Anything is Dessen's best work - I know Dessen fans all have their own favorite - it most certainly will not disappoint. Teenage first person narrators can often be annoying, and while Sydney has her faults, she at least didn't grate on my nerves. In fact, I was really rooting for her, cheering her on, and felt proud of her in the moments when she decided to speak up, fight, reach out, or even just break down and sob. She wasn't clueless, and she didn't sit around waiting for someone else to solve her problems. And she certainly didn't believe that all of her problems would disappear if she landed a boyfriend. While the issue with her older brother and how her family is handling it is the primary focus of the story, there is so much more going on and so many other characters to also cheer on. And like many of Dessen's other novels, there are small moments of wonder that make the characters, and the reader, just want to pause in the moment, despite the chaos that is circling around them.

Favorite Moment: When Layla expertly gets Sydney's mother to agree to let her spend the night with just the mention of paint fumes and new carpet. If I explain it more I'll ruin it so trust me, it is glorious.

Favorite Character: There are quite a few to choose from. There is Mrs. Chatham, who has multiple sclerosis and almost always has at least one of her children watching over her. Despite barely knowing Sydney, she takes a genuine interest in her life and listens to her, something she needs. There is also Layla, a pretty straightforward girl with a weird thing about French fries, but who more or less saves Sydney from herself, and others. And there is also Irv, the gigantic black guy who hangs out in Sydney and Layla's group of friends who can't get drunk due to his size and isn't stingy with the occasional piggyback ride.

Recommended Reading: There are many parallels between this story and Jasmine Warga's My Heart and Other Black Holes. Both have female narrators with a family member who has committed a terrible crime and is locked away for it. Now they both feel like they are suffering for their loved one's mistakes. If you are looking for more from Dessen, I recommend Just Listen, one of her earlier novels. 

Friday, June 19, 2015

Young Adult Fiction: Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee

Under a Painted Sky is author Stacey Lee's debut novel about two young girls attempting to hide in plain sight on the Oregon Trail. It is a crazy adventure with two unlikely companions at the lead, in a world that has left them little else except each other.

The Situation: It is 1849 and Samantha, a Chinese-American violin player, wants nothing more but to return to New York City and open a conservatory for music. But her father has decided that they will head west to California instead. When she returns home after a day of teaching music lessons, she finds out that tragedy has struck and her father won't be going anywhere. And after fending off a would-be attacker, she finds an unlikely ally in Annamae, a slave who has decided to take her chances and runaway in search of her older brother. Both girls know they will be hunted by authorities on the lookout for a Chinese-American girl and a runaway slave, but staying in Missouri just isn't an option. And neither is heading out on the Oregon Trail alone as two teenage girls who won't be able to defend themselves should someone decide to take advantage.

The Problem: Samantha and Annamae have had enough happen to them already that has pushed them to leave Missouri. But out of desperation and a desire to not be caught, they decide they have no other choice but to pretend to be boys. After adopting the names Sammy and Andy, the pair happen upon a trio of cowboys who are also headed west and don't mind having the pair come along. They also don't seem to mind that Sammy is Asian and Andy is black. Cay, West, and Peety give the young "boys" a sense of comfort and security they would never have had on their own. They even teach them necessary skills that will come in handy along the open trail. But even with their new friends, Sammy and Andy must keep their real identities a secret. And it becomes clear that the Oregon Trail is full of various adventures that make pretending to be a boy the very least of they girls' worries.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult novel set in 19th century America when many people were headed west to California, seeking their fortune in gold. For Sammy, it is the opposite direction she was hoping to go as she wanted to go back to New York. For Andy, it is the direction she would have gone anyway as she searches for the brother from whom she was separated in slavery. The two girls end up on the Oregon Trail (like in the iconic game) and join up with a group of cowboys from Texas. Many of the stops they make are stops many children of the 80's will remember from the game. And because Cay, West, and Peety are cowboys, there are lessons in shooting, roping, and horse-riding for their young companions. The group also encounters many other groups and families of varying ethnicities as they travel along the Oregon Trail. At one point they come across a group of rough Scotsmen who don't seem to care too much for anyone. And their little group is fairly diverse as Sammy is Chinese-American (something that often makes her stand out as there aren't many Asians in the Mid-West at this time), Andy is black, Peety is Mexican, and Cay and West are white. This makes for interesting discussions within the group, and also some tension outside of it when they come across certain people. The story more or less reads like a western adventure, but with an unlikely pair at the lead.

My Verdict: Maybe my reading history is limited, but I don't think I have ever read a book quite like this. The idea of a western adventure isn't terribly original. Neither is the idea of having girls dress up as boys to avoid suspicion and stay safe. But putting the two together seems original. And then to have the main protagonist be a Chinese-American girl who knows four languages and plays the violin is something else entirely. Giver her a runaway slave for a companion and this is one heck of a premise to try and follow-through on. However, I think Lee was incredibly successful in taking on this ambitious storyline. And while it is a fun adventure with potential danger in every group of people the travelers come upon, and even sometimes when they are on the trail by themselves, there are also serious moments full of heartbreak in the present, reflection on the past, as well as uncertainty about the future. This is a great book for YA readers looking for something just a little but different. 

Favorite Moment: When Andy reaches down and catches a snake with her bare hands, then quickly breaks its neck. Not bad for a girl.

Favorite Character: This is actually kind of difficult as there are several great characters in this book, but I guess it would either come down to Andy or Peety. Andy is the kind of person you would want to have on an adventure like this. She is tough, but gracious and patient, and often the voice of reason. Peety knows how to handle horses better than any of them, and of the three boys he seems to be the least antagonizing to the girls.

Recommended Reading: This was a different kind of YA novel from what I usually cover on this blog. Even so, I think I will recommend Ruta Sepetys' Out of the Easy. It isn't at all a western adventure, but it is set in 1950s New Orleans and follows a young girl who has her own adventure full of secrets and lurking dangers.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Contemporary Fiction: The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

Now that I have read Never Let Me Go, I was excited to pick up Kazuo Ishiguro's The Buried Giant. The recent publication has appeared on many lists to recommend it and is proving the be a new favorite for some. I knew going in that it would be different from Never Let Me Go, but I still trusted Ishiguro's masterful storytelling and beautiful detail.

The Situation: Beatrice and Axl, now an elderly couple, have decided it is finally time to journey to the village where their son is now living, after a very long separation from him. They realize they are old and that the journey will be dangerous and difficult, yet they have made up their minds and set out on their journey. What they don't realize is how important the memories of all of their years together will become to them, which is problematic seeing as how they both struggle to recall most of their life together. They also aren't prepared to be joined on the journey by Winstan, a Saxon warrior; Edwin, his orphan charge; and Sir Gawain himself, a knight from King Arthur's Round Table. The five of them will continue on this increasingly mythical journey, all with their own goals and plans.

The Problem: While Beatrice and Axl simply hope to reach their son, it seems Winstan and Sir Gawain also share a goal, to slay the great and dangerous she-dragon Querig. This shared goal should bring the two men together, but it only proves to ultimately push the two apart. As a knight who was given the task under King Arthur, Sir Gawain is reluctant to allow a Saxon warrior take the honor away from him. Meanwhile, Winstan set out on this journey with one goal in mind, and he won't let anyone, even a knight under the great King Arthur, stand in his way. And while the journey was no doubt going to be difficult for Beatrice and Axl, having the three others join them has only added to the journey's treachery. And when they discover that they also may have a stake in Querig's death, they realize they may not have the option of remaining passive participants.

Genre, Themes, History: This is more or less a fantasy novel with many elements taken from stories like Beowulf, as well as other texts that tell of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and even Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain. In other words, there is quite a bit going on here. There is even a dragon that needs slaying, and the requisite journey that needs to be made in order to even reach it. On top of all of that, Ishiguro plays a lot with the ideas of memory and forgiveness. Beatrice and Axl want desperately to remember their shared past, while also fearing what will happen to their unity should their memories actually come back. Having the pleasant memories return is all well and good, but what happens when the bad memories of how someone hurt you returns? The ultimate end game for the story may be the death of the she-dragon, but having her slayed means much more than being safe from her attacks. And in many ways, her death would only be the beginning of the real journey.

My Verdict: To put it simply, this book was actually quite disappointing. It probably isn't at all fair to compare it to Never Let Me Go, but I am anyway, and The Buried Giant just does not measure up. For one, there are just too many unanswered questions when it comes to the end. Second, while at its core the book may be a journey to slay a dragon, there is mostly just a lot of talking and thinking that goes on. There are some page-turning spots, and both Winstan and Sir Gawain, along with Edwin, do provide the occasional fight scene. But even so, there really isn't much action to balance out the pondering and the talking. And the ending just isn't a big enough payoff for the slow moving story you have to endure to get there.

Favorite Moment: When Beatrice and Axl discover what is behind their fading memories.

Favorite Character: Beatrice and Axl both are delightful and surprisingly formidable old people, but it is the way Axl takes care of his wife along this increasingly difficult journey that endears him to me.

Recommended Reading: It will come as no surprise that I am recommending Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go. It is a very different story that reaches more into the future than the past, and for me it is a much stronger novel.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Science Fiction: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Since I plan to cover Kazuo Ishiguro's most recent publication, The Buried Giant, I figured I would go ahead and also read Never Let Me Go. It is one of those books that I feel like everyone has read but me, so it was time I got to it.

The Situation: Kathy, who is now a carer, is reflecting back on her time at Hailsham, a sort of boarding school in England. At the center of her stories and memories of Hailsham are Ruth and Tommy. Ruth is often the very definition of a frenemy, but there are some good memories of her too. Tommy was initially a somewhat hot-headed kid prone to outbursts, tantrums, and subsequently, relentless teasing. He would eventually calm down and make many friends, and even gain Ruth as a girlfriend. The relationship between Kathy and Ruth is already fairly tenuous, despite them being supposed best friends, and it is this new relationship between Ruth and Tommy that would really put things on edge.

The Problem: Navigating social situations at Hailsham is enough of a challenge, but the kids must also study to keep up their grades, and also produce works of art (paintings, sculptures, poems, etc.) for the seasonal exchange. The best of these creations end up in a mysterious gallery that none of the students have ever seen, and that no one at Hailsham even talks about. Something else no one talks about is how these students are ultimately raised up to be donors for the rest of the population. As Kathy is reflecting back on her days at Hailsham, she is in her eleventh year as a carer, knowing eventually that will be brought to an end and she will become a donor. Some become a donor sooner than that, but all do eventually. For people like Kathy, living a normal life as we know it is not an option. 

Genre, Themes, History: I am inclined to think of this book as science fiction. Although, if I am honest, it really isn't completely outside of the realm of possibility. While there is a much bigger story going on regarding Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy's futures as carers and donors, the story at the very front of the novel is the students' lives at Hailsham and how they interact with each other. Kathy is a typical girl, trying to make friends, do her schoolwork, and live her life. Ruth does what she can to assert herself as the leader of their little group. All attention must be on her, and not only does she project herself as special, but she must be the only special one. Anyone who threatens this little setup and reveals it as anything else is belittled by Ruth and cast aside. With a friend like her, who needs enemies? And Tommy is more or less a typical boy, playing sports and living his life, while trying to figure out what is really going on at Hailsham and what the future holds for all of them. It is a novel with a slow build and slow reveal. All of the details of the situation aren't revealed immediately. And only as Kathy keeps remembering things and telling stories is her full situation clearly realized. Given the amount of secrecy she was used to enduring at Hailsham, it makes sense for Kathy to tell the story this way.

My Verdict: As I said, this book has a slow build, but it is worth sticking with it until the end. The more Kathy tells of her story, the more the reader understands about her situation, and about how ultimately horrifying it is. Unfortunately for Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy, each secret that she reveals is more heartbreaking than the last. And Ruth's attitude and actions make an already tough situation even more unnecessarily difficult. There were times when I felt that Kathy was a little too naive, even as an adult. And some of the dialogue didn't ring true. But overall, this is a compelling story, and I am excited to check out other novels by Ishiguro.

Favorite Moment: When Kathy catches Ruth in a lie, without coming out and saying it and actually embarrassing her friend.

Favorite Character: I would say Kathy, but there were times when she was just too naive and gullible for me, so instead I will pick Tommy. At the beginning he is that kid who would throw chairs in the classroom while having a tantrum over a little thing. But he ends up being a smart and curious adult capable of many things that he didn't get to show at Hailsham. 

Recommended Reading: I recommend On Such a Full Sea by Chang-rae Lee. It is another story with a different take on what the future will be like, and how one portion of society could potentially be used purely to support another.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Historical Fiction: A God In Ruins by Kate Atkinson

In the author's note for this week's selection, A God In Ruins, Kate Atkinson mentions that she would rather think of this book as more of a companion piece rather than a sequel to its predecessor, Life After Life. In it, the story follows the life of Teddy, Ursula Todd's little brother, as he deals with unexpectedly surviving the war and living a life beyond it.

The Situation: Edward Theodore Todd, or Teddy, is the fourth of five children, and it is pretty much accepted by everyone in the family that he is his mother's favorite. So it quite naturally breaks her heart when he goes off to fight in World War II, becoming a competent and respected bomber for Britain's Royal Air Force. After three tours, the last of which he didn't expect to survive, even becoming a prisoner of war for a short time, he comes back home in order to start having the future he didn't expect he would get to have. But soon comes marriage, a child, and eventually grandchildren. Of course, Teddy must also endure all of the tragedies that life insists on bringing us. And as he continues to live on, even while those he was once close to begin to die off, he will always occasionally reminisce about his time in the war, wondering if what he did, what they all did, was justified. Was he a hero? Was he a murderer? Was he simply following orders?

The Problem: While A God In Ruins is more or less Teddy's life story, the one problem that seems to stick with him throughout the story would be his daughter, Viola. Having each grown up as one of five children, both Teddy and his wife Nancy had imagined they would also have a large family. And Teddy naturally thought that family would include a few sons. So the appearance of Viola, along with the knowledge that she would be the only one making an appearance, already put Teddy somewhat off-balance. But he also wasn't expecting her to become the selfish, entitled, passive-aggressive nightmare that she would become in childhood, and continue to be even after growing up and having children of her own. It's bad enough that memories of the war have stuck with Teddy, now he also has a daughter who either doesn't want to hear about them, or wants to blame men like her father for bombing innocent people. Viola resents her father at eery turn, especially after Nancy's death. Ultimately, Teddy must try his best to live a life he didn't expect to have, but one he is still ultimately quite grateful for. 

Genre, Themes, History: This is a historical fiction novel that is also a Bildungsroman. Teddy's life story is told through sections divided up by certain time periods. While each section is labeled as to which year it covers, the sections do not appear in order. Also, even within a section that is supposed to be about 1942, there will be some discussion about events that happened in the past, as well as events that will happen in the future. And while the entire book is about Teddy, some sections focus on other people, such as Teddy's wife Nancy, his daughter Viola, his grandson Sunny, or his granddaughter Bertie. While Life After Life focused quite a bit on the childhood of the Todd family, A God In Ruins focuses more on Teddy's life after he has left his childhood home, starting with his involvement in the war. In the author's note, Atkinson mentions the many lives that Ursula lived in Life After Life, and asserts that the story in A God In Ruins is another one of Ursula's lives, one that wasn't covered in the previous book. So really, there could be a few books that tell the story of Teddy's life, each with a different outcome.

My Verdict: A God In Ruins is certainly more straightforward than Life After Life, mostly because the main character isn't forced to relive the same events over and over again. But this second book is also somehow less straightforward than the first due to the events of Teddy's life being told out of order. And one section may reference another, even if the referenced events may not have happened yet. That did cause some confusion for me, but ultimately all of the details end up sorted out. And without the novelty of the main character living her life over and over, I was wondering how interesting a book that is seemingly about WWII would be. But Atkinson proved to be able to tell a great story, even without a character that doesn't have any special sort of time traveling ability. Much like Life After Life ended up nominated for a Goodreads Choice Award in the Best Historical Fiction category (which it ended up winning), I expect the same to happen for this book. It is a book that goes into detail about the bombers of WWII without becoming either depressing or tedious. I think it deserves some sort of award just for accomplishing that alone.

Favorite Moment: Pretty much any time Viola reaped what she had sown, which is often, because she sows a lot.

Favorite Character: It isn't hard to see why Teddy was always his mother's favorite. In his younger days he is very much a "good boy," and he grows up to be a good man, much to his daughter Viola's annoyance. He is far from perfect and has his own flaws, but some of his worst traits are better than many of our best ones. 

Recommended Reading: While it isn't completely necessary to read Life After Life before A God In Ruins, it would certainly help as it would introduce many of the characters in this book that aren't given a whole lot of attention. Plus, as I mentioned before, the previous book gives a full picture of Teddy's childhood, something almost completely left out of this one. 

Friday, May 22, 2015

Historical Fiction: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

As I will eventually be covering her most recently published novel, A God in Ruins, I decided to also read Kate Atkinson's previous work, Life After Life, which was the winner for Best Historical Fiction in the 2014 Goodreads Choice Awards. With a premise that promises readers a character that is forced to relive her own life over and over again, I was ready for a novel that could probably span more categories than just historical fiction.

The Situation: In England in 1910, Ursula Todd is born during an epic snow storm. For years the family and their servants would remark that they had never seen snow like that, and hadn't since. As Ursula grows up, her life is marked by a constant sense of deja vu. She often has the feeling of having done certain things before, even though she never actually has, and having been certain places, even though she has never seen them in her life. She is also often plagued by strange and cryptic dreams, and knows answers to questions that no one has even asked yet. Sometimes a sense of dread or foreboding will come upon her so heavily that she must act, leading her mother to send her to a psychologist, and her father to quite naturally be very concerned. Her brothers and sister all have their own individual traits - Maurice is forever a jerk, Pamela reliable and caring, Teddy sweet and incredibly likable, and Jimmy...well he is just Jimmy - but Ursula's is most likely the most troubling.


The Problem: It seems that Ursula has been destined to live her life over and over again, with her death being different from the one she experienced before. While she does end up dying from an incredibly aggressive strain of the Spanish flu multiple times, it isn't for lack of trying to avoid it. But only once does she die from accidentally falling out of a window, from unknowingly gassing herself in her own apartment, from choosing to die in the middle of the war, or from the collapse of a wall after England has been bombed by the Nazis. And in each life, small decisions she makes can not only save her own life, but others as well, especially with Adolf Hitler rising to power in Germany, bringing about World War II and all of the devastation it would inflict on Europe. In each life that she lives, Ursula has different experiences, and gets a little better at avoiding peril. But what is the point of her being given all of these chances? What is she supposed to do that would stop her waking up on that incredibly snowy night after having died moments before?

Genre, Themes, History: This is a historical fiction novel with elements of both science fiction and fantasy. Ursula Todd is living her life over and over again. A lot of the events are the same, but some are completely altered, or erased altogether, with just the slightest change. Only sometimes does she get a kiss from a boy on her 16th birthday, and only in some timelines does she end up married, and only in one does she end up a mother. Life After Life is a book that allows the author to give her character multiple story lines without having to pick and choose just one to follow through on. Because Ursula is bound to wake up again on that snowy day as a new baby, she gets to try out a different course this time and see how her life will go. Unfortunately for her, because she is always born in England in 1910, her life will always include World War II and the awful events that come with it. Her brothers will always become soldiers, England will always be bombed, and many will always end up dead. It isn't so much a question of whether we would change our future if we could. It is more of a question of if we could change our future, would it matter?

My Verdict: It is always tricky business for any book, movie, or TV show to try to attack time travel, because logically, it just doesn't work. But Atkinson deals with it in such a way that doesn't let the troublesome logistics of it get in the way of a good story. And with every fresh start of Ursula's life, the reader all at once both knows and doesn't know what to expect. The general path stays the same, but many key events could turn out very different, and that is what makes the book such a compelling read. With every little decision that Ursula makes, the reader doesn't know if any little change will cause Ursula to live a little longer, maybe even accomplish whatever it is she is supposed to accomplish to stop the cycle, or cause that particular timeline to come to an end, allowing her to try yet again, starting with that snowy day. I recommend this book not only to historical fiction lovers, especially those who are interested in the events and people surrounding Europe during World War II, but also anyone who would enjoy a somewhat fresh take on time travel. 

Favorite Moment: While it may be the longest and most tedious section of the book, I did enjoy the timeline where Ursula works as a sort of rescue worker, looking for survivors among the destruction left behind after the Nazis drop bombs, risking her own life in the process.

Favorite Character: Ursula's lives are unfortunately full of unsavory and reprehensible characters, but her sister Pamela is always one of the good ones. 

Recommended Reading: I typically avoid novels that center around any sort of war, so I had a hard time coming up with a recommendation here. But I did thoroughly enjoy Between Shades of Gray by young adult fiction writer Ruta Sepetys. The story follows fifteen-year-old Lina Vilkas as she and her family are deported to Siberia by Stalin in 1941. It doesn't have the time travel element, but it is an incredible story of a harsh journey as experienced by a teenage girl.