Monday, 29 April 2013

Amity & Sorrow

When an author describes her novel as a tale of "God, sex and farming", it's hard to know what to expect. Having weighed this up against all the buzz that's been surrounding it, I delved in.

I wasn't disappointed.
Amity & Sorrow is an exciting read and instantly you're plunged into the action as mother Amaranth and daughters Amity and Sorrow speed away from all the girls have known. The urgency of their escape is slowly revealed through cleverly interwoven flashbacks to their time as first wife and eldest daughters in a polygamous cult. We follow them as they settle on a farm (some better than others) run by a lonely abandoned husband, living with his adopted son and elderly father, with a mixture of fear and hope that they would be found.

Peggy Riley's characters are brilliantly crafted and immediately credible. Amaranth tries to right the mistakes that has seen her children grow up without knowledge of the world. This ignorance, designed to protect them, has corrupted them in ways that Amaranth could never have foreseen. I loved the characters of both sisters too; Amity, apparently blessed with healing powers and open-minded to a new life, and reluctant Sorrow, stubborn and longing for her old existance with an increasingly terrifying ferocity.

The creation and collapse of Amaranth's idyll is recounted and the consequences seen in the damage done to her daughters. There are parallels with the life of farmer Bradley as he seeks to keep his farm afloat and is alone, and offers the family kindness even in the face of Sorrow's destruction.

Riley's creation is a masterful one. She crafts great villains whilst also offering hope; darkness is never far from light. The novel's themes are powerful and gritty and elements of it are disturbing. Amity & Sorrow isn't a light read, but is all the more rewarding for it. With strong links to the Branch Davidians and frequent references to Waco, this is a cautionary (rather than sensationalist) tale of how power and greed corrupts, as well as a fascinating view of one family's escape from the sinister grip of a polygamous cult.

This was a really enjoyable, thought-provoking book. For me it definitely lived up to the hype and was one that made me groan at the end of my commute when I had to stop reading for a while. I would warn that it's not necessarily for the faint-hearted, but is rewarding nonetheless.

(Available from Amazon)

Saturday, 20 April 2013

Life After Life

Life After Life comes with an intriguing premise. A baby is born in a snowy February in 1910. She dies at birth. In the next chapter, she is given another chance and survives; the reader then follows the child, Ursula, as she grows up before, between and during the World Wars, with a unique gift. She can go back and correct her mistakes, dying then starting again.

I've read several reviews of this now, mulling over how my thoughts compare. I was encouraged to pick this up after seeing adverts and reviews for it everywhere. Now having read it, I think my conclusion is that I liked it, but only loved it in parts.

The story is complex and Kate Atkinson's writing is clever and flowing. Metaphors of darkness and light pervade and a real sense of foreboding exists. Some sections are brilliant, such as when Ursula is battling to prevent the death of her, her brother and her maid from Spanish Flu. The repeating and thwarting of her efforts add an almost comic twist. However, some sections I found slightly laboured, such as Ursula's time with Eva Braun and Hitler as the continent inches towards war.

Overall, I think this was a great mind-twisting journey. Throughout the story you question what is real, and even when the worst happens you have hope that Ursula can reset and have a happier life. Characters die and are then brought to life. I also loved the sense of familial love at the heart of the novel, and it helped add grounding and a sense of reality. The character of Ursula changed and adapted as she subconsciously learnt from her errors in her parallel lives. The result is a character you wish the best for, but also she is not the same person from one segment to another. The constant characters of her siblings and parents help anchor the story and attach Ursula to each of her lives.

I do think this is a book worth reading; I suspect it's not worth reading in the way that I did. As the title of this blog suggests, I do most of my reading on my commute. I don't think this is a book designed for this purpose. I often found myself a bit confused when opening at the beginning of my journey and having to flick back a few pages to remind myself. The sense of deja vu which facilitates the central premise just makes the tale a bit confusing when you are reading at the extremities of your day. Perhaps if I'd read it over a weekend it would've been different. Instead, I often found myself a bit disorientated, and at the end I felt I'd been reading Ursula's saga for a very long time.

This is definitely a clever, interesting read; just perhaps not one for the rush hour.

(Available in hardback or Kindle format from Amazon)