100 Essential Books – A God In Ruins – Kate Atkinson (2015)

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I thought Kate Atkinson’s previous novel , the Costa Award winning “Life After Life” (2013) was terrific.  I’ve recommended it many times but the feedback I get back can be mixed.  Some readers find the author’s structure off-putting.  Main character Ursula meets with many deaths on her way through the book, reliving parts of her life in different ways in a novel where “practice makes perfect” is an underlying theme.  I personally loved the structure, the rich and memorable cast and the superb sense of the era, especially the years of World War II.

 These years also provide the main focus of this novel, more of a companion piece than any kind of sequel as we revisit the lives of the Todd family through Ursula’s brother, Teddy.  This time, structurally, it’s far more straightforward.  It moves around chronologically but Teddy, unlike his sister in “Life After Life” has one life to live.

 During the war Teddy is a fighter pilot and it is the author’s recreation of his everyday battle for survival which packs a potent punch.  He is a wonderful character and I love the way the author has developed him with this outing.  He really comes alive on the page, especially as a caring grandfather when his war heroics are barely ever discussed by the family.

 I did feel that it was the unusual structure that helped the last book to sizzle and I was concerned initially that this more conventional approach but using some of the same characters might pale in comparison.  It is different but it certainly does not disappoint.  I was totally involved throughout and taken aback by the novel’s depth and richness.  It stands alone from its predecessor and those who like Atkinson’s writing but found its stop-start technique wearying are urged to give this a go.

 Within both of these novels Kate Atkinson has taken pains to remind us that we are experiencing fiction and there is a bit of toying with us as readers to bring this home.  What we have here is a writer in superb control of her craft.  Her next novel, due later this year, will take us in a different direction and it would be good if, in the meantime, I could catch up with her four books featuring detective Jackson Brodie (of which I’ve only read the first so long ago that it will need revisiting). 

 With “A God In Ruins” Kate Atkinson also won the Costa Novel Of The Year.  On the evidence of this pair of celebrated novels she is one of our finest living novelists writing at the height of her powers.

 fivestars 

A God In Ruins was published by Doubleday in 2015. I read the 2016 Black Swan paperback edition.

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Top 10 Books Of The Year -Part 2 (The Top 5)

Without any further ado here are the five books that did it for me in 2015.  To find the full reviews please click on the titles

5. Work Like Any Other – Virginia Reeves (Scribner 2016) (Read and reviewed in September)

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This is the one that should have made the progression from the Booker longlist to the shortlist.  An astonishing debut.  It’s 1920s Alabama and a plan to bring electricity to Roscoe Martin’s farm goes badly wrong.  It’s the second tale of rural survival on my list but is imbued throughout with hope -throughout the darkest moments there’s hope and Reeves conveys this beautifully.

4. His Bloody Project – Graeme  Macrae Burnet  (Saraband 2015) (Read and reviewed in August)

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My pick of the Booker Prize shortlist.  Published by a tiny Scottish independent this was one that would have slipped through my net had it not had the Booker nod.  A historical novel that reads like true crime is an interesting concept but what makes this special is the real feel of the crofting community of the Scottish highlands in 1869 through  a prison journal, witness statements, official documents and court transcripts. Sold well after its Booker recognition but a win would have turned this into one of the year’s big books.  It is certainly a big book in my opinion.

3.Black Narcissus – Rumer Godden (Virago 1939) (Read in June and reviewed in August)

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Love the film but have never actually got round to reading the book.  Neurotic nuns up a mountain – what’s not to love?  I wasn’t sure if Godden would have been able to convey the technicolour lushness of the film but she certainly does.  Hopefully in 2017 I’ll be able to seek out more by her.

2. Life After Life – Kate Atkinson  (Doubleday 2013) (Read in April and reviewed in May)

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2013 Costa Novel award winner. I am the last one around to read this?  Structurally superb, risking accusations of style over substance but producing a novel which is both technically surprising and first class. “Practice makes perfect” is a theme of the novel and Atkinson here gets close to perfection.

Time for the long silence before the winner is announced (oh, can’t do long silences on a blog so I’ll get straight on with it .The reviewsrevues Book Of The Year 2016 is……….

1.  Joe Speedboat – Tommy Wieringa (Scribe 2016) (Read and reviewed in May)

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In any other year there could have been as many as three Wieringa novels in my Top 10 as the other two I have read are hovering outside the Top 10 and are both very good.  This is also how I felt last year with his “These Are The Names” published by Scribe and which saw them embarking on a programme to of bringing out his earlier Dutch novels translated by Sam Garrett. A 2009 debut this was apparently the biggest ever selling Dutch debut in his homeland and it deserves a huge audience here.  A coming-of-age novel about Frankie, who has survived a horrific accident and becomes swept up by the antics of newcomer Joe Speedboat.  Like all the best books it provokes a myriad of emotions- it is touching, unpredictable, outrageous and laugh out loud funny.  Scribe have been a great support to this blogger this year, but there’s certainly no favouritism.  This book has reached my summit on merit.

This is the second year I have gone for a book in translation for my top pick.  Last year’s Top 5 can be found here.  I have probably read more translated novels this year but that is because of authors such as Tommy Wieringa.  If there is a pattern, and I wouldn’t have said there was, but looking at my ten titles I can see that there may very well be one, it is to make my top 10, authors, set your novels in the past.  I wouldn’t have said I was a great historical novel fan but this list suggests otherwise… We’ll see what 2017 conjures up.  Bring it on!

As I read a lot more books this year than I normally do there are a number of titles that I feel bad about missing out on my Top 10 – so here are a few special mentions for recent publications.  The Wicked Boy – Kate Summerscale, Hot Milk-Deborah Levy, The Double Life Of Kit Kavanagh- Marina Fiorato, Eileen -Otessa Moshfegh, Do Not Say We Have Nothing – Madeliene Thien,  Rembrandt’s Mirror- Kim Devereux, Tall Oaks – Chris Whitaker ( incidentally a nominee for the newbooks Book Noir book of the year) , Angel Of Highgate – Vaughn Entwistle, Himself- Jess Kidd (the last four authors I have had the great pleasure of interviewing this year- always one of my personal highspots of reviewsrevues.com)

In my next post I’ll honour the re-read that gave me the most pleasure this year.

See my Top 10 Books Part 1 – numbers 10-6 here

100 Essential Books – Life After Life – Kate Atkinson (2013)

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I don’t know how this book has passed me by up to now. It won the Costa Novel Award in 2013 and features some of the same characters as her 2015 Costa Novel award winning (and equally prestigiously the Nudge Bookhugger Book of The Year 2015) “A God In Ruins.”  I chose not to read that from The Bookhugger shortlist as I hadn’t read this.  Now I have I cannot wait to pick up a copy of her latest.

I have very much enjoyed the Kate Atkinson novels I’ve read to this point but she hadn’t really blown me away to the extent that I thought she would but she’s put that right as this is a mind-blowing book.

The little I knew about it concerned its structure, spanning in time from 1910 and the birth of the main character Ursula.  I knew it stuttered along and when tragedy befalls Ursula it begins again.  I had one of my “style over substance” concerns and I have friends who told me they just couldn’t get along with it, but, open-minded as ever, I thought I’d give it a go as I sensed that with this and the follow-up I could be missing out on something very special.

I loved the structure.  I’m not plot-spoiling by saying in Ursula’s first incarnation she is still-born so the story starts again with a slightly different aspect for her to survive childbirth and then fall foul on a day at the beach.  It inches forward in time and it is always a surprise when Ursula prematurely meets her maker.  As the perils of childhood diminish this happens less frequently but then there are the way years to contend with.  Ursula senses some of these repeats as “déjà vu” which leads to attention from a psychiatrist who tells her a little about reincarnation.  “Practice makes perfect” is a theme underlying the whole novel.

Disregarding the structure, this book has in place everything needed for an excellent novel.  Atkinson is in total control of events and her characters and there is such a rich and memorable cast that it is no surprise she decided to revisit through the eyes of Ursula’s much-loved brother Teddy in “A God In Ruins.”  There’s a superb sense of the era, particularly in the war years section.  The sheer relentlessness of the Blitz and the nightly tragedies witnessed brings home that survival really was just a matter of luck and throughout the novel one small change in actions can bring about very different outcomes- also largely down to luck.  If I were a more philosophical person I feel I could really get down with analysing all this, nevertheless, for a general reader the whole thing is extremely entertaining.

I didn’t want it to end and which is the real ending anyway?  Ursula’s choices can be as small as opting to approach a frightened do to having world-changing significance.  I loved the way the seemingly trivial and world-shattering go along side by side.  I’m going to give no more away but if you like tales that span over decases and are prepared for the author to play with time then you are likely to love this as much as I do.

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“Life After Life” was published in 2013 by Doubleday.