Saturday, 23 May 2015

Past Habitual by Alf MacLochlainn / The Turning Over by William McCauley / Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Waterstones have a special offer for the late May Bank Holiday weekend: an extra 10% off when you spend £25 (or more) simply for entering the code MAY10 when checking out. Click here to take advantage! The offer ends on Tuesday the 26th May at 12pm which I think means midnight, but might mean noon so don't spend too long browsing!


Past Habitual by Alf MacLochlainn
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

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I received a copy of Past Habitual from its publisher, Dalkey Archive, via NetGalley, in exchange for my honest review. This is my twelfth review for Sophie and Suze's NetGalley Challenge.

Childhood play, scarlet fever, a first kiss, befriending a Nazi spy--the narrative of Past Habitual roams through experiences both commonplace and formative, all under the uneasy canopy of wartime Ireland. Moving with ease between the voices of a young child, a German immigrant, an I.R.A member, and colloquial chatter, MacLochlainn forms a web of interactions that expose a century's tensions. A combination of traditional prose, poetry, monologue, and music, Past Habitual is an engaging and fascinating depiction of an Ireland struggling through the effects of war--both distant and on her doorstep.

Past Habitual is a collection of some twelve short stories all of which are set in Ireland. Alf MacLochlainn uses a variety of writing styles and, judging by the extensive bibliography at the back of the book, has incorporated a lot of real sources and events for his tales. Unfortunately I found that this has resulted in a lack of cohesion. I did enjoy three of the stories: 'A stitch in time', 'Why did I volunteer to kill the kittens' and 'Squitlings of memory or imagination on the Upper Shannon'. The remainder however either were difficult to read or lost me completely because of long tracts of dry historical or technical information, or long dialogues. I did encounter some moments of vivid description where MacLochlainn's Ireland suddenly sprang to life, but there was little in the way of strong characterisation. The synopsis intrigued me but I was disappointed by the resultant book.


The Turning OverThe Turning Over by William McCauley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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I received a copy of The Turning Over from its publishers, The Permanent Press, via NetGalley, in exchange for my honest review. This is my thirteenth review for  Sophie and Suze's NetGalley Challenge

I have made a few Kiva loans to Sierra Leone but, other than a vague awareness of the vicious war there, know little about the country so I jumped at the chance to read The Turning Over when it was offered. I didn't at first realise that the book isn't exactly new. I believe it was first published in the late 1990s and has been re-edited for a 2015 reprint.

The Turning Over's great strength is in its portrayal of the minutiae of life in 1980s Sierra Leone. Ex-Peace Corps Volunteer Robert Kelley has stayed on in the country working in paid employment at a fisheries project. The project is now losing its support and he must turn it over to a corrupt local official, knowing that this will be very bad for the people dependent on it. I loved McCauley's descriptions of houses and livelihoods, the differences between both Sierra Leonans and white ex-pats, and also between different groups of Sierra Leonans. He manages to convey the desperation of the poorest people without judging, and contrasts this against the affluent white life.

While Robert, as our protagonist, doesn't really do much and is often a pretty unsympathetic character, he does allow the reader to view the moral conundrums posed by The Turning Over. Although when finally overtaken by what seems the outbreak of civil war, his river escape is exciting. I wouldn't recommend The Turning Over to fans of action thrillers, but as an insight into an often unrepresented country, it is a very interesting novel.


Life After LifeLife After Life by Kate Atkinson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is my sixth review for the Read Scotland 2015 challenge.

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Having not been particularly impressed with my first Kate Atkinson read, When Will There Be Good News, I have had Life After Life sitting on my Kindle for months unread as I kept overlooking it in favour of other titles. What a mistake! Atkinson has created a incredible premise in Ursula's reliving of her life and executes her idea with wonderful skill.

I particularly liked the strength of the surrounding characters and found it easy to imagine Pamela and Maurice, Sylvie and Hugh, Teddy, Bridget and Mrs Glover and the irrepressible Izzie as real people. Their speech and behaviours seemed always spot on for their portrayals. Most fascinating however is Ursula's fluctuating character as the events which shape her future life either do or don't take place. Episodes such as Spanish influenza are so sad and shocking. This is not a relaxed read as it is impossible to guess from where the darkness will next fall.

Atkinson's impressive research carries the tale, without getting in the way, and I appreciated her viewing of the Second World War from both sides. Perhaps the end few chapters are a little too much 'must have a happy ending' for my tastes, but for sheer inventiveness and keeping all those plot twists logical, Atkinson deserves high praise indeed.


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