It’s been a really long time since I’ve done a book review for this blog, though it doesn’t mean I haven’t been reading! My list for 2015 so far has been long and varied, so I’ll select a few good ones, and hopefully get back into my regular monthly reviews after this. If you’ve read any of these, please share your thoughts in the comments below; I’d love to hear what you think.
“Life After Life” by Kate Atkinson
I heard Kate Atkinson interviewed on CBC radio a few months ago and was spellbound by the interview, even though I had no idea who she was. With her lovely British accent, her sense of humour, and her interesting anecdotes, I immediately felt drawn to her.
But I forgot to write down her name, and eventually forgot altogether, until my friend Kelly (who’s pretty much a professional book-reader and whose recommendations I take very seriously) told me about this book. When I flipped to the back cover and recognized the name “Jackson Brodie” (Atkinson’s famous character), I realized I’d finally found her.
“Life After Life” is incredible. It’s the mind-bending story of a young woman who continually relives her life, although each time takes her down a different fork in the road – until she finally gets it ‘right.’ It’s set in England and spans from 1910 until the mid-60s, although most of it takes place during World War II.
I think it’s the best novel I’ve read in a while, and I can’t wait to get my hands on the sequel, “A God in Ruins.”
“Sweetness in the Belly” by Camilla Gibb
This novel is set mostly in Ethiopia, which is a country that has fascinated me for a long time. (If I could go anywhere in Africa, that’s where I’d go.) It tells the story of an English girl who is orphaned and raised in North Africa as a devout Muslim; she eventually makes her way to the city of Harar, where she lives in a poverty-stricken family and teaches Quran to young children. Then the civil war hits in the mid-1970s and she is forced to flee to England, a place that is part of her heritage, yet hardly home.
I found it particularly gripping because Ethiopia is so rarely depicted in literature. To get such a close-up view of the customs, the language, the Muslim-Christian tensions, the male-female relationships, the fierce patriotism (i.e. There never was an Ethiopian diaspora until the war because nobody would ever think of leaving), made it a wonderful read – reminiscent of “Cutting for Stone” by Abraham Verghese, but a little less complex.
“The Jazz Palace” by Mary Morris
As a musician, I love books about music, and this one is full of it – bursting with glorious descriptions of jazz, which I love. Set in Chicago in the early part of the 20th century, it tells the story of a young boy who can’t seem to live up to his Jewish family’s career expectations for him because all he wants to do is play music. (Do you blame him, especially since he’s a virtuosic jazz pianist?)
The novel sinks into true historical facts, the challenges of immigrant life in a rough city, the escape that jazz offered for many restless souls, and the racism and violence that exist.
“In his solo he soared. He flew above the city, hovering on his dark wings. He brought out the saddest tune he’d ever found. It was the sound of empty beds and eating alone, children locked in a room and widows with nowhere to go. Somebody said that on the eighth day God created loneliness. So Napoleon must have been close to God because he was making it come out of his horn.”
“A Spool of Blue Thread” by Anne Tyler
I had never read anything by the Pulitzer Prize-winning Tyler before, but I started it with high hopes after listening to the librarian rave about her. It was a good but very strange book, perhaps because I was expecting something different. After opening with what seemed to be a major scene, it was never mentioned in the book again, nor resolved in any way.
The whole book proceeded like this – constantly setting up for something big that would make me think, “Oh, this must be the point of the book, the actual plot” – but inevitably, it would just keep going on without resolution or further discussion. I finished it in confusion, feeling well acquainted with the family that are the main characters, but still not understanding why the book had been written.
Is this common for Tyler’s style? Is she a sort of stream-of-consciousness writer? It was a curious experience, but not one that I particularly enjoyed, to be honest. I like it when a book has a defined purpose.