Audiobook Review: Life After Life

lifeI have a prediction.  That prediction is that Life After Life will be my favorite novel of 2013.

Yes, this novel is that good.  And don’t get me started on why this title was not nominated for the 2013 Man Booker Prize. That’s a complete mystery, especially considering the fact that I read several of this year’s nominees.  This novel was more deserving of the nomination than a few of the riddles that I encountered on the Booker list.  But I digress; it’s time for me to pen an ode to this magnificent work by Kate Atkinson.

Life After Life follows the lives (yes, lives) of Ursula Todd.  First born in 1910, she succumbs to a very early death, and darkness falls.  Immediately following, she’s born again.  She lives a little longer.  Darkness falls.  She’s born again…. lives a little longer… I think you get the idea.  Believe me, however, when I say that I’m oversimplifying the meaning behind the plot. This novel gave my soul an affectionate squeeze.  I adored every poignant word, and cannot overstate the impact that this book offers, if you open yourself to its message.

With each gift of life, Ursula becomes just a little wiser.  Just a little more worldly.  Just a little more aware.  She can’t shake the feeling that she’s been here before.  She can’t understand why there are moments when something evil seems to be patiently lurking around a corner, causing her to inexplicably take a different route.  The choices she makes affect her life in ways that she can’t even begin to fathom. As her wisdom grows, so too does her longevity.  So too, does her overall purpose.  Her lives eventually culminate into a breathless crescendo; one that left me both exhilarated and exhausted.  I also wanted to start all over again.  I now miss the characters terribly.

If I were to share more about the twists and turns of this novel, then I would be denying you the pleasure of discovery.  I cannot share how Ursula’s choices change her.  I cannot hint at how, after repeated attempts, Ursula is able to see true colors, defend herself, love the right people, and save lives.  To be given the opportunity to live over and over until you get it right…. is that a blessing, or a curse?  If you were given the chance to do everything again, what would you change?  How would your personality grow?  Would you stray from the beaten path, not knowing what was ahead?

This book brushes up against glimpses of the afterlife.  It touches on a form of reincarnation that will lead you to believe in extraordinary cases of cause and effect.  What kept popping into my mind was the Butterfly Effect chaos theory, which purports that a small change in one place can cause significant differences in a later state.  For me, that was Life After Life.  One tiny change was all it took to shape an entire life.  One seemingly minute alteration had the astounding power to affect happiness, social status, and purpose.  What could such hindsight do for history?  My guess is that it would do marvels, if in fact people were willing to learn from the mistakes of the past.  This brilliant book will haunt me for a long time, but in a very good way.

This audiobook was narrated by Fenella Woolgar, and after about 3 minutes of listening, I fully understood why they chose her for the novel.  I quickly became just as immersed in her voice as I was in the story. She embodied each character perfectly.  With tones of silk, Woolgar breathed life into every crevice of the story.  I do hope that I have the opportunity to hear her narrate again soon. She was truly remarkable.

Needless to say, I’m giving 5 heartfelt stars to Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life.  Please get your copy today.  I promise that you will not be disappointed, because you never know if that stubborn “been here before” feeling is déjà vu… or wisdom.

Audiobook Review: Where’d You Go, Bernadette

bernThis novel was a marvelous surprise!

Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette is a bold and compulsive read. On the surface, the novel smacks of mystery, but this is truly more a character study than anything else.

Bernadette Fox is a curious soul.  She suffers at the hand of her own brilliance, and is left scarred by stifled creativity.  Delving into her past reveals a surprising career as an architect, and a long history of very odd behavior.  Current day, she has a husband who’s a tech guru at Microsoft and a sharp daughter whose survival from a heart defect is a miracle in itself.  They actually live in an old and decrepit school in Seattle (because they can afford it), complete with a sprawling landscape and ridiculous neighbors.  The private school that their daughter Bee attends is peppered with a new breed of helicopter parents who consistently wait for Bernadette’s social mishaps.  (There are many.)  No matter to Bee though, because she completely adores her wacky mom.

You quickly surmise that Bernadette may have more wrong with her than the occasional argument with the neighbor over spreading blackberry bushes when you’re introduced to her virtual assistant, who lives in India.  For what appears to be a small fee, this assistant will do everything from making a dinner reservation to calling in a prescription for motion sickness pills.  This assistant becomes invaluable to Bernadette when plans emerge for the family of three to take a trip to Antarctica; a reward for Bee’s exemplary grades in middle school.  It’s clear from the start that this trip represents a serious problem for Bernadette, who clearly suffers from a debilitating case of agoraphobia.   Her growing inability to interact with anyone outside her home forces her to behave increasingly erratic, albeit some of her antics are downright hilarious.  (All I’m going to say is, “billboard.”)

Her withdrawal from society and penchant to live through her virtual assistant eventually lands her in a heap of hot water, and then, suddenly, she vanishes.

The search for Bernadette is taken up by her grieving daughter, who just knows in her heart that mom is somewhere.  To locate her mother, Bee acquires and pours over email messages, official documents and top-secret correspondence, which culminate into a character study unlike any other.  The format of this novel is in fact the messages themselves, and it takes a moment or two to get accustomed to the back and forth between e-mails and letters.  Once dug in, however, you’ll find that Where’d You Go, Bernadette is a delicious read.

My only frustration with this novel was with Bernadette.  I started the story loving her every thought and action, but then found myself disliking her by the book’s close.  Yes, her character was not entirely in her right mind, but her somewhat narcissistic tendencies forced her to neglect her daughter, which I found intensely frustrating.  In other words, her quirky nature was fun for a while, but after being wrapped up in the world of Bee, I wanted more stability for the girl.  I won’t give away the end, but I will say that I had more faith in Bee than any other character in Maria Semple’s world.

This audiobook was read by Kathleen Wilhoite, and I must say that she was excellent.  My first reaction to hearing her voice and seeing her name was curiosity, having only seen her playing supporting roles in television.  She carried the voices beautifully though, and I was pleasantly surprised by her tones and inflection.  Well done!

4 stars for Where’d You Go, Bernadette.

 

Audiobook Review & 2013 Man Booker Shortlisted: A Tale For The Time Being

15811545Rating: 4.5
A Tale for the Time Being
A Novel by Ruth Ozeki
Audiobook Narrated by Ruth Ozeki 2013 /14 hours and 45 minutes

I’m not sure where to begin.

This is one of those novels that you finish and look around, blinking, just a little stunned that you’re no longer in the author’s world.  If you pick up this 2013 Man Booker shortlisted title, I promise that you will feel submerged by the tale.  You won’t be the same when it’s complete.  You’ll want it to win the prize.

I’m sure you’ve heard what this novel is about.  A 16-year old girl in Tokyo starts a journal, and pens an unflinching look at her life.  A writer on an isolated Canadian island finds that journal, along with other items, on the shore near her home.  By reading this teen’s heartbreaking story, the writer, named Ruth, breathes life into this lost soul across the ocean.  The Japanese girl, Nao, is suicidal.  Her home life is a disaster.  Her school days are packed with the most inhuman classmates your mind can fathom.  Her only solace is her darling 104-year old great-grandmother Jiko, a Buddhist Monk who sweetly and patiently shares her benevolent wisdom.  As the story of Nao’s life unfolds in her journal, Ruth slowly but surely becomes frantic in her wish to help.  She wants to know if Nao is all right.  But how?  Was this journal swept to Ruth’s shore by the 2011 tsunami?  How can she know if Nao finds help?  Finds support?  Will Nao find her own “Super Power” with the help of her great-grandmother?  Most importantly, is Nao alive?

There’s only one thing that Ruth can do.  She must keep reading.

Incredibly, A Tale For The Time Being encompasses bullying, loneliness, Zen Buddhism, writer’s block, the afterlife, War, Alzheimer’s, the environment, the metaphysical world and quantum physics.  You might reread that list, thinking “that can’t be right – how many books did Elizabeth actually read here?”  But it does cover everything I’ve listed.  And all of this is masterfully shared by the author.

It’s been awhile since I’ve jumped into a story with this much emotion.  No – I didn’t jump in – I did a cannonball.  This Shortlisted novel will have you gasping for air.  It seamlessly moves back and forth from Ruth’s life to Nao’s, while simultaneously leading you down a path of enlightenment.  You’ll come away with a renewed faith in the power of the human spirit, and dare I say that you’ll want to crack down on school bullying?  My guess is that you will.

I must warn you though, that there are portions of this novel that are not easy to digest.  On more than one occasion, I listened to the story with a wince.  But as raw as this novel can be, the truth is that there’s no escaping the truths that it shares.  From Nao’s experiences as a teen to the unwavering look back to her great uncle’s time as a kamikaze pilot during the war, you will not come away unscathed.  It will be difficult, but you’ll be a better person for hearing their stories.

What’s remarkable about this novel is that its spirit reaches through the muck and hurt, and presents a bright spot of hope.  You will not finish this book with sad or resentful feelings.  After reading the stories of Nao and Ruth and their families, you’ll realize that not only is everything real, but it is also all linked. Because what simmers underneath this tale is a mystic force that you’ll wonder about long after you’ve left the last page.  It’s the shadow you thought you saw, but upon looking directly, could no longer find. You know it’s there though, and you believe in your heart that it’s watching over you.

People touch people.  We are all spinning on the same planet.  Some of us are trying to “bully a wave.” Others are trying to understand how to live in harmony with the rough water.  No matter your background, this is a novel that is worth your time.  It’s something that I believe that I will revisit one day.  And when I do, I can’t wait to hear Jiko’s words with fresh ears.

If you have the opportunity to listen to the audiobook version of this novel, please jump at the chance. The words are read by the author herself, and her narration is perfect throughout.

4.5 stars for A Tale For The Time Being.

 

 

Book Review: Harvest

Harvest-225x300From Goodreads: In effortless and tender prose, Jim Crace details the unraveling of a pastoral idyll in the wake of economic progress. His tale is timeless and unsettling, framed by a beautifully evoked world that will linger in your memory long after you finish reading.

But it wasn’t effortless prose.

As much as I wanted to like Jim Crace’s Harvest, a novel that is reported to be his last, I often found myself avoiding it.  Yes, the book’s prose was beautiful.  Yes, it was a tough and interesting premise.  Yes, there is no question that Jim Crace is a respected author who has written another novel that is being widely discussed across literary circles.  It just was not the book for me.

This story is told from the perspective of villager Walter Thirsk, and the entire narrative takes place over just 7 days.  Beginning with two plumes of smoke, Harvest slips the reader into an uncertain time of master and servant, villager and outsider, tradition and change. Walter Thirsk, a widower and the novel’s guide, shares his observations throughout the story and shares his misgivings about the shift that a farming village is facing from grain to sheep.  Change is never easy, and for the inhabitants of this village, fear of it pulses through their veins. This fear leads to everything from poor judgement to finger pointing, both of which smack of the potential to create an utter wasteland.  Clearly, when too much energy is used to resist change, the unintended result can be destruction rather than preservation. This parting message leaps from the latter pages of Harvest, which made the story’s lasting mark a sad one.

During the Bookermarks podcast, I noted that Harvest would be the perfect Literature assignment in High School.  Crace’s language deserves undivided attention, and the story provides multiple layers that can be peeled back for further examination.  Deeper meanings can be extracted from the simplest of Crace’s sentences, which is unquestionably the mark of intelligent prose.  I do not question the merit of Harvest as a literary accomplishment, nor do I wonder why it has its place on the 2013 Man Booker Shortlist.

Simply put, my trouble with Harvest was its pace.  While it was clear that every single word was chosen with great care, I found that the plot quickly became mired in its own language. The descriptions bogged down the emotion.  In other words, it just didn’t flow.  It wasn’t a book that I was anxious to pick up again, and while I will always appreciate beautiful writing, I also like to get lost in a story.  Harvest did not provide this escape. While I congratulate Jim Crace for a novel that this both poignant and complicated, it is not a novel that I will be picking up for a reread anytime soon.

3 Stars for Harvest.

This review was simultaneously published on Bookermarks.