Wednesday 4 February 2015

Mini-reviews: Life After Life (Atkinson) and Cross Stitch/Outlander (Gabaldon)

Life After Life - Kate Atkinson

February 1910. In the middle of a snowstorm, a baby girl is stillborn. End of story.

In another February 1910, the same baby, Ursula, is born and survives.

Life After Life is made up of numerous versions of the same girl's life, where one different choice will take Ursula's world in vastly different directions. Not exactly a reincarnation story, as whenever Ursula dies and is reborn, time is reset to the same starting point. But as the book goes on, Ursula starts to have a sense of deja vu, and her decisions are influenced by half-remembered versions of what happened in another time - a glimpse across to another leg of the trousers of time, to borrow Terry Pratchett's analogy.

Life After Life reminded me of a repeating poem, such as a sestina, with the same images and phrases recurring regularly, very beautifully written. The fact that the same character dies over and over again does not make for an easy read; you spend each section getting attached to the same family anew, and you know it cannot end well. Some segments were relentlessly depressing, and there was one point at which I wasn't sure if I could continue reading. Later, however, I was very pleased that I stuck with it. The version of Ursula's life in which she spent the early 1930s in Germany was absolutely fascinating, and led up to the most daring event of the novel. Unfortunately, each story finishes with Ursula's death, and resets back to her birth, so you never get to find out what happens next. Which is the real history, if there is one?

If you liked this, read: 11.22.63 by Stephen King, Kindred by Octavia Butler

This book came from: Laura, as a birthday present. (Thanks Laura!)

Cross Stitch/Outlander - Diana Gabaldon

Cross Stitch has been on my to-read list for several years, thanks to various bloggers' recommendations, but was rather daunting being over 850 pages long. It tells the story of a young English woman accidentally being transported back in time to 18th century Scotland. As she tries to find her way back to her own time, she falls foul of a monster of a man with a disturbing resemblance to her husband in the 1940s, and is persuaded into another marriage with the young and headstrong Jamie Fraser.

I was prepared to have a problem with Cross Stitch because adultery stories are a deal-breaker for me. I can't be havin' with them. But is it adultery (or bigamy) if your husband doesn't exist any more - or won't exist for over a century? Is the Doctor from Doctor Who a bigamist, if he's married more than once? For him time travel is no different from any other kind of travel - all his wives are out there somewhen. For Claire of Cross Stitch,time travel is not so simple. Even though by some freak she managed to hop across the years, it is no simple matter to hop back. Maybe she's stuck in the eighteenth century forever, and might as well make the most of it.

And one can't review Cross Stitch without touching on the subject of Jamie. Most of the reviews I've read about Cross Stitch (or Outlander) go a little bit swoony when writing about him. Yes, he is a very appealing romantic lead, just the right combination of reckless courage and innocent honesty, the sort of character I used to love reading and writing about a few years ago.(and even now I find I am not immune to his charms.)

Although I enjoyed reading Cross Stitch while I was reading it, for the first half of the book I didn't feel the urge to pick it up again when I'd put it down. It had an unexpected humour to it, and I found the idea of a 20th century nurse having to heal illnesses and wounds with 18th century medicine fascinating. But it is long and a little slow for a while. The pace picks up once Claire and the reader have found their way around the world of the past, and I raced through the last 500 pages in about three days. I'm not sure that I'm in any great hurry to continue with the series; it is a big commitment and this one stood quite well on its own. But I'm glad I read it, and the ideas and characters stayed with me after I'd finished the novel, and sometimes I found I would bring them with me into my other reading.

If you liked this, read: A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin, Kindred by Octavia Butler (Again. Seriously. Just read that book. And I'll throw in 11.22.63 again for good measure. Both of these books need to be read.)

This book came from: Ryde Bookshop, Ryde, Isle of Wight.


  1. I was confused when I started reading your Cross Stitch review because I know it as Outlander lol

    I liked it but I didn't fall in love with the writing or Jamie like most readers did.

    Life After Life sounds fascinating but sad.

    Karen @For What It's Worth

    1. Yes, for some reason Outlander is published in the UK as Cross Stitch. It's not a title that makes much sense in context (though goes well with my Loch Ness Monster bookmark.) And now there's a TV series of it, there are editions in the shops with both titles. So confusing!

  2. I need to read Cross Stitch! (As I keep telling you everywhere else on the internet, oops.) My mum's friend finally brought it back... just as I have a pile of library books to read. Oh well. Jamie Fraser will be there when I'm good and ready to get swoony. :P


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