Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

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Life After Life – Does the course of your life depend on fate or do you have control based on the choices you make?  Ursula Todd is born on a snowy winter day in 1910 .. and then dies before she can take a breath.  Or does she? The very same day, she is born, the doctor arrives in time, and Ursula lives.  We follow Ursula’s childhood, adolescence, and adulthood as Kate Atkinson weaves in key historical events from the early to mid 20th century – World War I, the Spanish influenza epidemic, and then World War II, both in London during the Blitz and Germany in the ‘30s and ‘40s.  We witness Ursula’s birth and death over and over again — in each timeline she makes different decisions that lead to wildly different life paths. Or is it fate acting upon her?  A highly enjoyable read for fans of British historical fiction and alternative histories. The audiobook, read by Fenella Woolgar, brings the characters to life. (Submitted by Beth)

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Silence by Shusaku Endo

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Originally published in 1966, then in translation in 1969, this book has gained recent popularity due to the release of the feature film of the same name.  This fictional account of the life of a Jesuit priest in 1640’s Japan is a story that depicts the battle between religious faith and doubt.  The “silence” of the title refers to God’s presumed silence to the suffering of the protagonist and those that by association are persecuted by Japanese authorities.  The conflict the protagonist faces is both internal and external.  The underlying irony of this story is twofold with the protagonist viewing his mission in Japan at first as truly righteous.  He does this even in the face of his former mentor and the Japanese authorities pointing out that he is an outsider presuming that he knows what is best for the Japanese by preaching about salvation and in doing so leading those that follow to persecution and death.  The other irony which is not overtly mentioned is that although the priest is condemning the Japanese for their persecution of Christians in Japan at the same time in Christian Europe heretics were being persecuted for not adhering to what was thought as the right form of Christianity.  Although this book is set in Medieval Japan it is not an overly historic work.  One learns more about this time period by reading Clavell’s Shogun in comparison; however this is not the point of the novel.  It is instead an internal religious discussion by the writer for readers to understand what it means to worship and have beliefs that are not shared by the majority and considered intrinsically foreign.  Silence by Shusaku Endo forces readers to confront how they may have given up their beliefs or ideals in order to conform and survive and get ahead in society. (Submitted by Shane)

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The Hunger by Alma Katsu

hungerAs a fan of both historical fiction and supernatural horror, when I heard there was a new novel out about the Donner Party, I knew I had to read it. Enter Alma Katsu’s new novel, The Hunger. Set in 1846, this novel is based on the true story of the Donner Party, a doomed group of 100 people heading to California’s fertile valley farmland by way of wagon train. As tragedy after tragedy laid waste to the group, only a handful ever made it.
The Donner wagon train contains two large wealthy families, a beautiful woman rumored to be a witch, a large Mormon family without a patriarch, and some single men, who are all leaving their family farms in Illinois hoping for a better life. As Katsu weaves her story around their lives and voices, the reader gets a good sense of just how hard it was for people on the trail to make it: they must give birth on the trail, tend to the sick, hunt their food, gather their medicine from plants, and deal with the physical act of walking nearly 12 hours per day. Though many of the group start off as strangers to one another, the reader comes to find their lives and sins are intimately connected, revealed through haunting glimpses into all of their shady pasts. As the group members begin to become aware of these connections, their camaraderie is quickly worn away. These divisions spell their doom as their environment grows more barren and a supernatural evil begins to prey on them. (No spoilers!)
This book is not for the faint of heart. It showcases the best, as well as the worst, parts of human nature when faced with a raw survival situation. Despite the difficult subject matter, I found this to be an extremely captivating read, and eager to read more about the Donner party (perhaps my next read will be a non-fiction account of this tragedy, The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of the Donner Party, by Daniel James Brown).  Katsu changed a lot of the real story, but she used many real life events that happened to these real people and seamlessly added a supernatural evil. The result is totally thrilling and cinematic. I eagerly await a film adaptation! (Submitted by Mandi)

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The Anatomy of Ghosts by Andrew Taylor

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This book came to my attention a few years ago but I didn’t have a chance to read it until now. I really liked it and I’m torn between being sorry that it took me so long to get to it and glad that I finally did.

It fits into so many categories, historical fiction, romance (I use this one cautiously), and a mystery though it isn’t classified as one. Notice I didn’t say it was a ghost story but it is loaded with atmosphere especially as it takes place in 18th century Cambridge, England. The author shows a cloistered, mostly male, world of the academics which was political, religious and blasphemous mix, but he also offers a glimpse into the life of the people who serve that world and the Cambridge of that time. I can’t wait to read more of this author’s works. (Submitted by Renee)

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Moloka’i by Alan Brennert

molokaiIf you’ve ever been a member of a book club, you would know that it’s rare when everyone gets to like the same book. Usually,  there are opposing opinions. Not with this book! A dozen of people gave it 4 stars out of 5. Impressive! We thought it was well written, easy to read, interesting, based on historical facts which allowed us all to learn something new or expand what bits and pieces we already knew.

The novel focuses on the leprosy epidemic of late 19th and early 20th century  in Hawaii. The disease was little understood at the time and was spreading so much that the government naturally decided to quarantine the sick. However, the quarantine part was rather radical. People with disease were sent away to an island and that was their doomed, last destination since there were no effective treatments available. Even more disheartening is that children were treated the same as adults – they were sent away too, torn away from their families. The main character in the book is Rachel Kalama. She gets to be sent away when she is 6 years old. The story follows her life, as she grows up, and faces various challenges. The ending is not all ‘cakes and roses’, but it’s not bad at all and you are left in a positive mood regardless of a heavy subject. (Submitted by Mariya)

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The Golden Mean by Annabel Lyon

the golden meanThe Golden Mean by Annabel Lyon is a great historical novel  based on true events.  It’s about Alexander III of Macedon (also known as Alexander the Great) who was a young and a powerful Greek emperor who ruled the largest Western empire of the ancient world. He was only in his early 20’s when he became a king, and died at the age of 32.  In his teen years he was tutored by the legendary Greek philosopher Aristotle. This novel is re-imagination of what it was like for Aristotle to tutor this clever young man whose limitless ambition was also alarming. Consequently, Aristotle aimed to give Alexander the “Golden Mean” to become a prominent leader without losing control over his desire for power. (Submitted by Jamila)

 

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The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson

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This book grabs your attention on the first page and never lets it go: “Accidents ambush the unsuspecting, often violently, just like love” (unnamed narrator, p.1). The narrator of the novel may at first seem beyond redemption: he’s a drug addicted, porn producer who pursues vices at every corner until he is brutally maimed by fire in a car accident. The book follows his slow and painful recovery in the burn ward and the people he meets along the way including the beguiling and mysterious sculptress, Marianne Engels, who claims that they were lovers in medieval Germany, when she as a nun and he was a mercenary. The author seamlessly weaves other tragic tales of love – parental love, unrequited love, self-love – throughout the narrative and introduces us to captivating characters from around the world – Japan, Iceland, England, and Italy. While this novel falls squarely within the historical fiction genre, it also touches upon the idea of time as circular, amorphous and includes magical, mystical and surreal elements. I heartily recommend this novel to all readers passionate about deeply drawn characters, multicultural themes, and page-turning prose that you just can’t put down! (Submitted by Andrea)

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