Audiobook Review: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

lifeAfter listening to about three minutes of Life After Life I became entirely baffled as to how this wonderful, wonderful work was completely (and disturbingly) overlooked for the Man Booker Prize 2013? Why oh Why and How on earth did some of those other titles appearing on the long-and-shortlists rise above this stellar achievement? It is baffling and disturbing to say the least! Luckily those over at The Guardian’s “Not-the-Booker” awarded Life after Life the award. And, recently it was appropriately named a finalist in The Costa Novel Award.  (I think I’ll start following the Costa Awards more closely!) I believe I’m safe in saying that for all of us here at the Literary Hoarders we are pulling for it to take the prize. Certainly, Elizabeth, whom named Life After Life as her very favourite of the year, will be anxious to hear the announcement and the crowning of Atkinson as the (rightful) winner.

Life After Life is a marvellously crafted tale about Ursula Todd, born in 1910 during a winter storm and dies during childbirth. Ursula Todd is again born in 1910 during a winter storm and survives. Then, once you’ve caught on to this game, you are pulled way, way in and find yourself never, ever wishing to leave. What if you could go back in time and alter your path? What if you could go back in time and save those that are closest to you from an unfortunate and early demise? What if you could go back in time and make tweaks to your life and those around you so that only the best is the result? For Ursula Todd, this is precisely what she is able to do after every time “the darkness falls” upon her. She is never able to shake the ever-present feeling of déjà-vu, and Ursula takes us through an incredible journey where those feelings shape and alter how she approaches major events in her life. Time after time. It’s marvelous.

The originality of the tale aside, what I really enjoyed as well was Atkinson’s writing of the Todd family dynamics. I loved spending time with this family, and the love with which she writes for them. She gives you wonderful family characters that you either want to throttle or hold tight. Despair for some will grip your heart and you’ll wonder and be left highly intrigued as to how Ursula may change the course of events that befall them. She gave us Sylvie, Ursula’s mother (the woman that pissed me off regularly) and her best-friend and elder sister Pamela (Pammy) and the beloved younger brother Teddy. She even perfectly presents the despised by all, including his parents, the eldest son/brother Morris (and Derek Oliphant will be a name that sends chills down your spine!)

What heightened the enjoyment of this story to glorious levels is the (amazing, incredible, fantastic, fabulous, splendid) narration by Fenella Woolgar. Words cannot expressfenella-woolgar-profile how freaking fantastic her narration is. She gave every character a rich, satisfying and distinct voice. Truly, I believe this is the very best audiobook narrator I’ve had the pleasure of hearing. Elizabeth and I have continued to say how desperate we are for Fenella to follow us around and babble on about the goings on around us, to read us a bed-time story, honestly, she could read the telephone book to us and we would be entranced and begging for more. I don’t know to where or whom we write, but there needs to be a campaign started where she is given the job of narrating every single audiobook recorded.

“Startingly imaginative, darkly comic, deeply poignant – this is Kate Atkinson at her absolute best.” A great quote about Life After Life. You really should read this before it is crowned the Costa Novel Award. 4.5 stars – near perfection*!

And honestly, if you can, please, please, please treat yourself to this audiobook. If you listen to only one audiobook in your life, make it this one.

(*I found there was the overuse of the word “salubrious” and the part(s) concerning Eva Braun and Hitler I felt to weaken the story. But those are just very minor details for me in an overall fabulous tale!)

Audiobook Review: The Aftermath

17412761Rating: 4.5
The Aftermath
A Novel by Rhidian Brook
Audiobook Narrated by Leighton Pugh 2013 /9 hours and 43 minutes

Hamburg, 1946. While thousands wander the rubble, lost and homeless, Colonel Lewis Morgan, charged with overseeing the rebuilding of this devastated city and the de-Nazification of its defeated people, is stationed in a grand house on the River Elbe. But rather than force the owners of the house, a German widower and his rebellious daughter, out onto the streets, Lewis insists that the two families live together.

But The Aftermath is so much more than this, such a short title and such a short description that do not give you the full power of its meaning and scope. Upon finishing I just sat there and pondered how powerful and aptly stated this title is for this novel. The audiobook matched that power with its magnificent narration, range and emotion as spoken by Leighton Pugh.

Originally the ARC was received by Random House Canada with a lovely little note from Lindsey saying she noticed this was on my To Read pile and to enjoy! Now, does that girl not know me and my reading habits or what? But then I saw that it was available in audio and I jumped at that opportunity. I’m really glad I went with the audio version! Pugh breathed such emotion and life in to this story. His ability to speak with an American accent, or a Russian one or a French one left you smiling. But what left you breathless was the voice he gave Ozi, one the feral children fighting for survival and companionship with a gang of other feral children. Ozi’s voice is forever altered by a fire that scorched his throat. So the voice Pugh invented for Ozi was harsh and rough but brilliant. As well, and again another fantastic reason for gushing about audiobook love, is the pronunciation of the German words, places and people. Fantastic. It just lends great authenticity to the story and allows for exquisite flow and complete enjoyment.

So….The Aftermath. How poignant. I’ve read plenty of WWII historical fiction novels. Plenty. But never have I read one that so thoroughly captures “the aftermath”, and in this case, the aftermath for the destroyed and defeated Germany, but for the many, many and varied people involved. Germany and WWII are synonymous, wouldn’t you say? The events during the war are so heavily linked with Germany. But what of the aftermath? Germany has fallen, has lost the war in epic disgrace and exposed acts of the most horrific crimes against humanity as a result of the clenched fist of power by Hitler and the Nazis. As the Time Out in London so superbly captures, The Aftermath will:

“You’ll find yourself seduced by the quiet power of the…prose, the subtlety of [Brook’s] narrative technique, with its onion-skin layers of meaning, sympathy and revelation.”

Absolutely. It’s not a plot-heavy story herein. It’s Brook’s stunning creation of a myriad of characters whom profoundly and powerfully tell their story in a way just as Time Out says, with onion-skin layers of meaning, sympathy and revelation. Each of these characters are peeled back to reveal how the aftermath has affected them.

First we meet Ozi, the leader of a band of feral children. Gangs of these children roam the devastated landscape fighting for survival, begging for food, secretly staking out places to sleep each night. They are also beaten and scorned by the Occupied soldiers. Ozi, and his character in this story rest on the periphery of all those involved, yet he and his plight provide stunning insight to these hundreds of displaced children.

Then we meet the person to be considered the main character, Colonel Lewis Morgan. He is charged with overseeing the rebuilding of the city of Hamburg and the de-Nazification of its people. He is to requisition a home suitable to his role and standing and re-unite his family there. His wife, Rachael and only remaining son, Edmund arrive shortly after this requisition and Lewis’ unconventional decision pertaining to the German owners.

Rachael remains bereft at the loss of her eldest child whom was killed during a bombing back home in London. A bombing and death caused by the Germans. She fully embraces the “non-fraternization” laws and firmly drills this in to Edmund’s head. Poor Edmund is left to fade quietly in to the shadows all to aware of his mother’s crippling grief over his brother, and her considerable and continued unhappiness. Even the reunion with Lewis does little to return her to how she was before her son’s death.

The home Lewis is to requisition is owned by Stefan Lubert. “Herr Lubert” or “Lubert” as he is so often referred to in the book, (never by his first name), has lost his wife Claudia to the war, and lives with his stubborn, yet traumatized daughter, Freda. Lubert was an architect before the war, but until he receives his clearance papers that state he is not a Nazi, he must work in a factory. I found the character of Freda to be very interesting and liked how Brook chose to portray her. We know that every child was indoctrinated and forced to train to be members of the Nazi Youth. But what happened to these children once the Germans were defeated? For Freda, she has not let go of her training and each day performs the rigorous physical exercises that were once required. Even after her father’s admonishment, she continues and also joins in a gang of others that are resentful to the occupation of their country. I thought her character was brilliantly portrayed to show this part of the aftermath.

Lewis is quite different in his opinion and emotion about his role in the de-Nazification of Germany. He shows incredible compassion and understanding for their plight, and because of this encourages Lubert and Freda to remain in the upper level of his home while he, Rachael and Edmund occupy the main part of the house. Lewis is also against this thinking or law against fraternization with the Germans and encourages regular interaction with them. He is disgusted by the attitude that these broken and destroyed people remain “the enemy”.

Now, The Aftermath may take the predictable turn with Lewis leaving for many months to another part of Germany that requires his supervision and Lubert and Rachael left together in Lubert’s home. However, again, Brook provides a wholly sympathetic viewpoint to their affair. It is almost a necessary thing for Rachael. While Lubert feels it has the potential to be a step towards the future and letting go of his wife, for Rachael she experiences it as an awakening and deeper understanding of the love she has for Lewis. It changes her, but for the better for the future of her family. While it ends fairly neatly and without any serious repercussion, the reader is not left annoyed by this but rather is sympathetic to the healing so needed by all.

The Aftermath closes with Ozi in a touching and heart-wrenching moment. Which I think serves as a reminder for what truly is lost for so many in the aftermath.

Brook’s acknowledgement at the end, reveals that his grandfather, Walter Brook, actually requisitioned a home in Hamburg and did allow the German owners to remain in their property. They shared this home for five years following the war, and this is what provided the inspiration for this novel.

The writing is beautiful, the narration is stunning so I truly have to say that whichever format you choose to read The Aftermath in, either will certainly be most rewarding.  4.5 stars.

Thank you again to Lindsey and Random House Canada for the pleasure of reading The Aftermath.

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: Girlchild


I was returning a book to our public library and stopped by the “New Books” section on the shelves located on the way out the door. It’s a habit (and no, I refuse to preface that with “bad”) and one that sometimes yields favourable spur of the moment finds. This time three were sitting there looking highly appealing, but I knew so many others have already been sent to us that are waiting, waiting for attention. THESE are the ones that need to be read before delighting in others (so I convinced myself).  However, Girlchild was one that looked way too interesting and promising to be left behind.

When I first began, the pitch-perfect writing was pure delight, I settled in knowing my impulse check out was going to go swimmingly:

“Warped by the weight of too much snow and disappointment, beat down by too many punches from the fists of Calle boys, the DE LAS FLORES have scattered to the winds. All that’s left to speak for the neighborhood that grew up around it is the word CALLE, its two Spanish L’s asking why on a desert-bleached sign.”

However, the more I read, the further from delight those words began to hold. Don’t get me wrong, Girlchild is exceptionally well written, it borders on the brilliant actually, and the perspective of (in the beginning) 6-year-old Rory Dawn is astonishing, incredible and amazing. But then…then, in those words, there are terrible things that happen to R.D. Things that no child should ever endure or have worldly knowledge of. Rory Dawn’s sexual abuse at the hands of the “Hardware Man” that lives in the trailer next door and by his daughter sickens your stomach and deeply furrows your brow. The history and pattern of abuse against the Hendrix women will make your heart race in pain.

“Mothering is not this family’s strong suit.”

Rory Dawn comes from a long lineage of trailer park trash. Her destiny leads her to believe she will befall this one in which every woman in her family has succumbed- abuse and then motherhood when they themselves had barely left childhood behind. Yet, Rory is a spunky, determined girl focused on not letting this fate befall her. I wasn’t sure if I could continue, but to be honest, the writing and perspective is brilliant and I couldn’t keep my eyes away. My stomach clenched and my heart raced, yes, but my eyes could not be lifted from the pages. This is Hassman’s debut and it is considerable. Just cast your eyes upon this writing:

“Grandma couldn’t hold on to Mama and her sisters, Grandpa’s pathologies hid so much more obediently than did hers, hiding and biding their time. The State awarded Grandpa all four of his daughters, in gingham dresses and throats collared with lace, and he grabbed on to them with both hands, tore them apart, and put them back together so confused that by the time Grandma had pushed the custody papers through every in-and-out-box of the State of California to get them back, her girls thought she was the enemy. Their mother’s return shined a light on their pain, and like little girls always do, they thought this meant she was the one to be feared while the man with the big hands, who had used them in ways they would spend their lives struggling to overcome, was though of with longing as dirty and chewed as his fingernails.”

All of this stunning prose meets you before page 100, and just continues and no matter how more and more disturbing these words become, you cannot tear yourself away from her breathtaking way with the English language. So much revealed, feared and understood in such a small use of space. If you could just read it for her stunning way with words, every short and sweet sentence a powerful burst of art. And, sorry, but I just can’t help it, I feel like I have to keep writing passages from the book, because just look at how freaking wonderfully they are written!

“Single-wide, double-wide, a house with a hitch. Single mom, gravel drive. Propane by the gallon, generic cigs by the carton, and solitaire round the clock. Cousins and animals multiply like cars in the front yard. Nothing around here gets fixed…The road is paved with uncles. Smokey, Barney, Johnny Law, Pig, uncles with their badges, with their belt buckles, say, “Hey Sugar, Toots, Sweet Thing, is your mama home?” hand already through the already ripped screen door, finger on the latch.”

Girlchild is the story of Rory Dawn Hendrix and her flat out, full on determination to not follow in her mother’s, grandmother’s, or every other single woman imprisoned in the Calle’s footsteps. How Rory gets to celebrate her 15th birthday is with the wish “this is the year you don’t get pregnant”. With fierce, often eloquent and wholly sarcastic pluck, R.D. shares her life story. It is brilliantly written, it’s punctuated with sharp, short sentences filled with great and significant meaning. Through horror and disgust you will read of R.D.’s upbringing, but you will always cheer her on! With her trusty Girl Scouts Handbook, the 14th amendment and the U.S. Supreme Court case of Buck vs. Bell by her side, Rory is armed and ready to leave this unfortunate childhood and life in the dust. By the end of this you too will be standing on your chair cheering her forward and onward.

“I’m pretty sure that Viv never got to be a real Girl Scout, coming as she did from a place like the Calle, where patches are for mending and oaths are only muttered underneath the breath. But if Vivian Buck, feebleminded daughter of a feebleminded daughter, herself the product of feebleminded stock, if that girl had lived, she’d be in my troop, and with three fingers raised in Promise we’d show them just what the third generation can do.”

Girlchild rightfully earns its 4.5 stars – damn near perfection. It was a disarming read at times, but also one that I gobbled up in two short days. I highly encourage you to read in order to revel as I did in Hassman’s amazing gift. Tupelo Hassman’s picture is included on the back flap and I could never shake the sense of great sadness coming from her eyes and expression. Her very interesting and unique website can be found here. This is an astonishing debut and I am considerably interested in reading more of her future work.