Happy Birthday, Jimmy Stewart!
Life After Life opens with its main character, Ursula Todd, dying as an infant… and then being born again. This time, the doctor arrives in time and Ursula lives, only to die a few years later when she drowns at sea. She is born again and saved from drowning by a man painting a seascape who gets to her in time. Ursula lives her life over and over, never entirely aware of the process. She just gets a strange foreboding feeling that something terrible is about to happen. It isn’t until the end of the first World War, when the family’s housekeeper comes home with a bout of Spanish Flu after a night of celebration, that Ursula begins actively trying to change her fate. Up until this point I was enjoying the novel, but after this series of harrowing deaths I was thoroughly hooked.
Atkinson handles Ursula’s multiple lives with a deft hand, always presenting a slightly different perspective when she returns to familiar ground. For long stretches of time the book is an entirely realistic portrayal of life in England during World War I and II, and the only hints of fantasy come into play when Ursula slowly begins remembering more of her previous lives. Her parents eventually take her to a psychiatrist to discuss her constant feelings of “deja vu”, but that doesn’t stop Ursula from feeling certain she’s experienced things before.
However, Atkinson largely avoids turning Ursula’s life into a tale of her trying to change the future with foreknowledge. For the most part, she lives her life and turns left where she once turned right out of an unconscious desire to avoid horrible death or dreary misery. At one point in the book Ursula finds herself stuck in a loveless marriage so fraught with tension that I began hoping she would die soon so that she could take another crack at life. In another life, Ursula becomes intertwined with the German Third Reich at very high levels and Atkinson provides a surprising and sympathetic portrayal of Eva Braun that only makes those scenes more tense and disturbing as the war descends into chaos.
Ursula takes lovers or gets married, she has a child or she doesn’t, she lives her life and dies and lives again. With each successive life Ursula has a chance to make things right this time, and although that is sometimes true, it is also occasionally true that getting what she wants makes things far worse than they’d ever been before. Atkinson never explains what causes Ursula to live over and over, and the ending is open to interpretation. However, over the course of the story, we’ve experienced a myriad number of alternate Ursula Todds, each with slight variations on the same hopes and dreams, and the result is a deep, layered portrayal of life during wartime, as well as a striking character study of one woman growing up and coming into her own.
I’ve enjoyed previous Atkinson books, but Life After Life might very well be her masterpiece. When I describe it to my friends, I refer to it as “Downton Abbey with infinite reincarnation”, and if that sounds appealing to you, you should definitely pick it up. I also highly recommend the audiobook version, which has a pitch-perfect narrator with a supremely British name – Fenella Woolgar.
Bad Machinery Volume 1: The Case of The Team Spirit collects the first major story arc of John Allison’s webcomic Bad Machinery, which is actually his third webcomic set in the same universe. Allison is most well-known for its predecessor, Scary Go Round, which ended in 2009.
However, despite the fact that Allison has worked in the same overall setting for years, knowledge of his earlier work isn’t necessary to enjoy Bad Machinery, which is both a new series and a bit of a reboot. Characters familiar to long-time readers do appear in Bad Machinery, but only in supporting roles. Although I’d read the occasional Scary Go Round strip, I wasn’t particularly familiar with the world of Tackleford, so I approached Bad Machinery with fresh eyes.
Bad Machinery tells the interlocking stories of a half-dozen or so students at Griswalds Grammar School in Keane End, Tackleford. To a certain degree it’s about the kids solving mysteries, with the girls and boys keeping tally of each team’s “victories”, but in this first volume, the mystery didn’t necessarily feel like the driving force of the story.
Instead, Allison is content to spend time with the kids in their daily lives – going to school, doing projects, fighting bullies and nursing crushes. The boys are more determined to solve the mystery of their favorite football club’s bad luck, but that doesn’t stop the girls from uncovering important clues that come to play in the book’s resolution.
I definitely enjoyed reading Bad Machinery, and to a certain degree it reminded me of another book I’ve been reading, Skippy Dies, which also focuses on the lives of kids and teachers at a British school. Bad Machinery is a much more all-ages book, however, and has none of the vulgarity or adult themes found in Skippy Dies.
Although this volume of the strip does build to a resolution and reveal of the central mystery, I felt like it definitely showed its origins as a webcomic. Most of the book’s pages ended with a gag in the sixth panel, and the pacing was loose and a bit rambling. Although Allison always meant to collect the strip in story arcs, I think it is best enjoyed if you keep its webcomic origins in mind when reading.
Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.
DIY Home Decor Tips (from your cat)
À bout de souffle, 1960
You’re probably familiar with the Humble Bundle and its regular offerings of pay-what-you-want games bundles, but they’re not the only bundle in town. Most of the well-known bundle deals are focused on software or games, but there’s also a site called StoryBundle that sells collections of DRM-free ebooks from indie authors. Previous bundles have all been fiction offerings, but the newest bundle focuses entirely on the games industry, including criticism, game history and a scifi novel about alien games. Pay at least $10 to get all ten books, including two from Jordan Mechner, the creator of Prince of Persia and Karateka. You can also choose to donate part of the proceeds to charity.
If you’re at all interested in the history of the industry or game development, this seems like a pretty fantastic deal. I’ve never purchased any of the previous bundles, which were full of indie authors that didn’t appeal to me, but I might pick up this bundle just because it sounds like a pretty wide-ranging collection. For example, one of the books, Killing is Harmless, consists entirely of a long-form critique of Spec Ops: The Line. I’m also really curious to read more about the history of the industry going back to the very beginning. Anyone else thinking about picking up this bundle?
In a perhaps unsurprising move for our litigation-happy society, a disgruntled owner of Aliens: Colonial Marines has joined forces with a lawyer to start a class-action lawsuit against Gearbox and Sega. According to the article over at Polygon, his argument is that “Gearbox and Sega falsely advertised Aliens by showing demos at trade shows like PAX and E3 which didn’t end up being accurate representations of the final product”. Combine that with a review embargo that didn’t lift until the game was released, and anyone who preordered the game or purchased it before reviews were released got burned by what was universally rated a hugely inferior game.
Now, a $60 game purchase hardly seems worth clogging up our legal system with yet another lawsuit, but I do see the logic behind the complaint. Extensive game previews far in advance of the release are standard practice in the industry, as are pre-rendered cinematic trailers that avoid showing any gameplay. Even though the film industry has a reputation for spoiling nearly everything in its trailers, I’d argue that the games industry goes much further and tends to release an even bigger barrage of promotional materials far in advance of game releases. However, what does it mean if we can’t even trust their spoilers? I have a feeling that this isn’t the first time the industry has pulled a bait-and-switch on consumers with faked game footage or exciting cinematic trailers that fail to capture the actual game. Dead Island’s buzz-worthy cinematic trailer comes to mind.
Can you think of any other examples of a major bait-and-switch where a game was hugely different from its previews? Have you ever been burned by a demo or trailer that made a game seem more exciting than the reality? I’m wondering how long it’ll take before we hear about a SimCity class-action lawsuit…
Joseph D’Lacey’s Black Feathers is an interesting anomaly in the world of apocalyptic fiction. Instead of focusing on a dystopian post-apocalypse, as is the fashion nowadays, Black Feathers consists of two interlocking plot threads: one that starts in modern-day and continues through the fall of society, and one that follows a character hundreds of years in the future. It’s also the first part of a two-book series which continues in The Book of The Crowman (December 2013).
In the modern-day, Black Feathers focuses on the Black family, specifically their young son Gordon Black, who may be connected to a mysterious messiah figure named The Crowman. Crows seem to follow Gordon everywhere he goes. His mother and father are oftentimes accosted on the street by people with prophetic visions of a future where The Crowman heralds the beginning of the Black Dawn and Gordon’s part in it. The Crowman is an interesting combination of savior and destroyer, sometimes described as a demonic presence, a half-man half-crow who only wants to destroy the world and at other times as a healing presence with a deep connection to nature. The more we hear about The Crowman, the more unsettling and dangerous he seems, even as it also becomes increasingly clear that Gordon is deeply connected to The Crowman.
In the far future, Black Feathers tells the story of Megan Maurice, a young woman picked to apprentice with her village’s Keeper, a sort of combination medicine man and archivist tasked with keeping the story of The Crowman alive. Megan must travel along the Black Feathered Path to cement her destiny as the next keeper, a journey that involves visions of the past as well as harrowing encounters with The Crowman’s more animalistic aspect. Megan experiences visions of Gordon’s life and tasked with recording them in a special journal for safekeeping. One thing I really liked is that Megan’s world might be “post-apocalyptic”, but it doesn’t feel ruined. She has a comfortable life in a small village, and it is only when she ventures outside that safe place that she begins to encounter danger, all in the name of traveling on her path towards becoming a Keeper.
In fact, there are a lot of things I liked about Black Feathers; the portrayal of The Crowman was particularly nuanced and unsettling, and I also liked the juxtaposition between the modern-day and far future. I love the idea of a messiah who isn’t so black and white, simply because maybe the world needs a little destruction before it gets saved. The book’s true villains, the power-hungry Ward, were a bit more stereotypically drawn – the bloodthirsty corporate influence made flesh – but that didn’t make their methods any less terrifying.
My biggest complaint is with the book’s pacing. It took me a long time to make it past the first third of the book, and it was only when I decided to make a concerted effort to finish it that I finally started making progress. However, as I neared the end it became clear that Black Feathers wasn’t actually going to resolve anything major. Gordon and Megan both have some intense experiences as the book progresses, but these events seem relatively minor in the grand scheme of things. Black Feathers, sold as the first volume in a two-book series, feels more like the first half of one massive novel. I liked it enough to finish this first volume, but I’m honestly not sure if I’ll make the effort to pick up the second book later this year.
Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.
Fuck you, flowers.