Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

My other corking* good vacation book was Life After Life by Kate Atkinson.

Ursula Todd is born on a stormy winter night in 1911. Because of the snow storm the midwife doesn’t make it on time to deliver the baby, so the baby dies. End of story.

Not quite.

Life After Life, as the title implies, is all about  ‘do overs’.  Ursula is born again and this time she survives. But only for a few days. So the ‘do over’ button is pressed again. And again, and again, and again. And in a real twist, these lives aren’t at all  linear.  In one life Ursula may live into her twenties, the next life, she only lives until her teens. Then, we’re moved forward to another life when she’s in her thirties. Then, we go back to when she’s still a schoolgirl. 

Each time Ursula retains something from her prior life, a forewarning, something that could change the future outcome of events, perhaps even history.  We are introduced to characters who go unexplained until later.  Little images and scenes come back later with greater meaning and you nod your head as you recognize the significance after all.

Crazy and confusing right? 

Trust me it’s actually not. 

Yes, Life After Life is an unusual book, and if you’re like me it will take a few chapters to get into the perplexing style — but once once you settle in — it’s an amazing read.   You have to be willing to recalibrate and I often had to flip back to see when and where I was (For that reason alone, I recommend reading this in physical book form, it would be hard to navigate in e-book format).  Once the pace of the book becomes familiar, you won’t be able to put it down. 

Ms. Atkinson is a sophisticated writer with an impressive vocabulary and uses bits of Latin, French phrases, and entire paragraphs written in German (sometimes loosely translated, sometimes not at all).  She also references obscure books and quotes philosophers such as Nietzsche and Camus.  But please don’t let this dissuade you — Life After Life is not overly intellectual — trust me I got most of it and I don’t have a PhD — just a good dictionary.  Here’s an example (I’ve provided the definition):

Time isn’t circular,’ she said to Dr. Kellet.  ‘It’s like a … palimpsest.
‘Oh dear,’ he said. ‘That sounds vexing.’
‘And memories are sometimes in the future.’

 Ahh, I can hear you saying that’s the oldest premise ever (thinking Groundhog Day aren’t you?), but trust me dear Barmy readers, Ms. Atkinson’s imagination and creativity takes Life After Life to a whole new level.  She goes an unusual route to show that our character and choices don’t matter much either way. At times, Ursula gets killed in the exact same place and in the same way whether she’s a coward or a hero; a British secretary or high level civil servant; or even a German hausfrau. 

There is an impending feeling of dread as we wait to see what happens next to poor Ursula, but this is interspersed with humor and tenderness — mixing poignancy with a wry insights.  What I found most fascinating was this book took me everywhere from country village life, to 1960’s London, the Blitz and even (and somewhat unbelievably) Hitler’s Berchtesgaden.

There is literary genius in the manipulated narrative, but at its heart, Life After Life is simply a wonderful story, with many, many layers, tipped upside down and strewn about.  This book still has me thinking about possibilities and the role both choice and chance play in our lives.

In true appreciation, this goes on the keeper shelf for a second read.


*Corking:  A British term:  extremely fine —often used as an intensive, especially before good — I had a corking good time.

The Cottingley Secret by Hazel Gaynor

Hello all.

I read two corking vacation books – both were long, involved, and wonderful.

The first, The Cottingley Secret is a rather clever fictional take on the famous true story of the Cottingley fairies. Back in 1917, when photography was still fairly basic and people were less cynical, two young girls took photos of fairies they claimed played at the bottom of their garden.  The public was fascinated and divided on whether the photos were real or a hoax.

The novel opens in  2017 with Olivia who works as a bookbinder in London and is engaged to a man she knows is not right for her. After her mother died when Olivia was young, she was raised by her grandparents in Ireland where her grandfather owned a secondhand bookshop.  Now her beloved grandfather has died, leaving her the family cottage and his beloved shop.  She heads back to Ireland to see to the bookshop and check on her grandmother, who’s living in an assisted living home, suffering from Alzheimer’s.

Just before her grandfather died, he sent her a manuscript — ‘Notes On a Fairy Tale’  by Frances Griffiths — a family heirloom that’s been handed down to the women in her family over the years.  Olivia pulls it out to take with her to Ireland and begins reading.

Via the manuscript, we go back in time and learn about nine-year-old Frances Griffiths and her mother—both newly arrived in the UK from South Africa in 1917.  They are staying with Frances’ aunt and 16 year old cousin Elise in the village of Cottingley in West Yorkshire, while Frances’ father is fighting in WWI.

The cousins played together beside the beck (stream) at the bottom of the garden, much to both mother’s annoyance, because they often came back with muddy feet and wet clothes. Frances and Elsie said they only went to the beck to see the fairies:

I know that the best time to see them is in that perfect hour before sunset when the sun sinks low on the horizon like a ripe peach and sends shafts of gold bursting through the trees. The ‘in between.’ I call it. No longer day, not yet night; some other place and time when magic hangs in the air and the light plays tricks on the eye. You might easily miss the flash of violet and emerald, but I see their misty forms among the flowers and leaves. I know my patience will be rewarded if I watch and listen. If I believe.

To try an prove their story, Elsie borrows her father’s camera.  The resulting photographs allegedly captured images of fairies and the girls think the matter settled within the family.  But a few years later, the photos come to the attention of author, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who featured the story in a 1920 issue of  ‘The Strand Magazine’.  Because the renowned Arthur Conan Doyle was convinced that the photographs were proof that fairies existed, the story gained wide coverage and interest.   The girls are thrust into the limelight and the photos are scrutinized and tested  — experts hoping to prove a hoax.

Meanwhile we follow Olivia as she starts to appreciate the slower pace of the seaside village and begins to feel at home. The bookshop has brought back wonderful memories and she is rediscovers her love of reading books, not just binding them.  The manuscript has given her a magical piece of history that connects the Cottingley fairy photographs to the mother she lost when she was young – possibly with a hint of fairy magic.  She begins to reassess her life and decides to stay and manage the bookstore, unable to bring herself to sell it — also she has made friends with a widow and his young daughter — who happily believes in fairies.   Olivia herself is experiencing some strange occurrences with fairies appearing in her dreams and unexplained flowers being left by her bed.

I won’t give away any more of the plot but I have since done a few Google searches on the Cottingley fairies. It’s an amazing story that captured the public’s imagination for decades.  After years of Frances and Elsie sticking to their story of the fairy photographs being real, they finally revealed in the 1970’s that the photos were faked — they used cut out paintings of fairies drawn by Elsie and used hat pins to pin them to the ground.  All except for the last photo which they’ve claimed was the only real photograph out of all of the pictures they took over the years.

Here are the original photographs from 1917:


And the one photo claimed to be of real fairies.


With today’s photo-shopped images it is hard to believe that once people saw photos as truth.. But then again, this was a time right after WWI when people wanted desperately to believe in the possibility of fairies and spirits

The Cottingley Secret is a book of imagination and make-believe made even more fascinating because it’s based on the true tale behind two young girls and their fairy friends.  At the end of the book, Ms. Gaynor shows us the actual photos with her own author narrative and there’s even a letter from Frances Griffiths’ daughter – delightful.

I finished this book with a smile on my face.

I’ll close with my favorite quote from the book:

“There is more to every photograph than what we see-more to the story than the one the camera captures on the plate. You have to look behind the picture to discover the truth.”


Advanced readers copy provided by Harper Collins via LibraryThing.

Thank you

On vacation ~~

Book Barmy is on vacation.  Back soon.



But first, I must finish packing….


Fourth of July Recommendation

A Book Barmy recommendation for making it through what is bound to be a most unusual 4th of July.



I’m planning to work in the garden, visit some friends and watch fireworks from our deck (barring our usual fog on the 4th)  

Not to mention polishing off three books I’m reading concurrently

I know, I know ~~ just barmy…



Happy Fourth of July to all my Barmy American followers!

A trip to Maine

We had quite the heatwave here a couple of weeks ago.  I escaped the heat by taking a short trip to Maine.  Not really.  I dragged out our only fan, lounged in the cooler downstairs, and read two books set in Maine. 


One takes place during a blizzard and the other in a small fictional village. Both were page turners and both helped me forget the heat.





The Remedy for Love

by Bill Roorbach

This book has been on my shelves forever and with the snowbound cover and this little blurb on the back, I was ready to dive in and cool off:

Snowbound in Maine, two strangers struggle to survive — fighting, flirting, baring secrets.  Their sexy, snappy dialogue will keep you racing through. (People)

The state of Maine is predicted to be hit with “the storm of the century.” Small-town attorney Eric stops by the grocery store to stock up on some high-end provisions (fancy cheese, good wine, etc.) in preparation for a visit from his estranged wife. He finds himself in line behind Danielle, an unkempt woman he assumes to be homeless, who is having trouble coming up with all of the money she needs to buy her groceries. Rather than cause a scene, he pays the difference, then offers her a ride.

When they arrive at the fishing cabin where Danielle has been staying, Eric becomes increasingly concerned. This cabin is not winterized, Danielle needs water and firewood, not to mention more food than she had bought at the store.  And while she’s willing to accept a bit of his help, she’s more than ready to be left alone. But when Eric hikes back out to the road, he finds his car towed and himself stranded.  Without a car or a cell phone, the only place he can go is back to Danielle’s cabin—and she’s not a bit happy to see him again.

The two forge a prickly agreement to ride it out together. But, as the storm unleashes its fury, Danielle and Eric aren’t sure if sticking together is the best idea.  These are intimate strangers having intimate conversations to pass the time.   Lies are told, truths are revealed, and emotional wounds are opened.  The storm both outside and inside the cabin continues —  they banter, eat Eric’s fine cooking, share Danielle’s favorite Pop tarts, and try to stay warm, clean, and dry.  But questions arise  — is Danielle unstable and possibly dangerous? Is Eric the victim he has painted himself out to be?  It’s not clear which of these awkward misfits needs rescuing.

Some parts dragged for me — especially when we are presented with the details of Eric’s failed marriage and his soon-to-be ex-wife.  There are also some parts that strain believably, but on the whole I found Remedy for Love gripping.

This is no “two people caught in a blizzard” novel, this is a story of self-discovery, coping with the past, and perhaps even finding a future.  The author’s note at the end of the novel tells how three actual events were the genesis for this novel.




Oh, Henry

A Vintage Maine Novel

by T. L. Chasse


You may remember THIS POST where I discovered Ms. Chasse, a self-published writer who is happily crafting a series set in the fictional village of Vintage, Maine. The author kindly granted me a copy of her newest in the series.  So, for the second day of the heatwave, I opened the book to visit this verdant and more temperate village in Northern Maine.

Henry Titan is a young man who has Achondroplasia (dwarfism) and is living with his parents and sister.  He doesn’t let his disability get in his way, he’s happy, has a good job, enjoys watching baseball and playing video games.  But then one evening, after he’s been laid off from his job, he accidentally discovers he was adopted.  He learns he was left as a newborn outside the hospital in in small town of Vintage, Maine.   Angry with his mother for hiding the truth, Henry decides to go to Vintage to locate his birth mother.

He finds an apartment, secures a job as a janitor at the hospital, and while working at the hospital tries to find out if anyone knows about a baby left there 21 years ago.  He starts to adapt to this small town, its scandals, gossip and microscopic view of residents.  Henry makes friends, falls for a girl, eats a great deal of pizza, and gets involved in a very surprising love triangle.

He finds, despite the fact that his dwarfism makes him noticeable (and talked about), Vintage accepts him into their community. Henry is dealt with a curveball as he learns about his birth and there’s an surprise twist which I hadn’t figured out but had me chuckling. But in the end, Henry gets his answers – some very unexpected.

Just as in her previous installment, Ms. Chasse delights with her setting and characters.  And while there is a bit of over writing and excess detail,  which slows the pacing — she has a bullseye lens on small towns and their inhabitants’  kindness and idiosyncrasies.  Oh, Henry transported me to Vintage, Maine and it was just the escape I needed.

Oh, Henry is very much worth seeking out.  You can purchase it here on Amazon.  Author interview HERE

Get it?  Oh, Henry not to be confused with this GUY

Rules for Visiting by Jessica Francis Kane

I cherish my friends and firmly believe that friendship is one of the best things about living. But, I also recognize that friendship takes work.  It requires one to stay in touch, to be proactive, to plan that lunch date, and to go out when you’d rather stay home and read a book.  I’m not perfect, some friends have drifted away — others, I don’t see enough and I sometimes wonder if I prefer the concept of friendship to the actual participation.

With that preamble, you’ll see why I found Rules for Visiting immediately intriguing.

Here is May Attaway, a middle-aged landscape gardener who is introverted, socially awkward, and living with her father and a cat. She and her father live in a small town and have their routines.  May and her father are equally unconventional and often cranky, but try not to be:

My father and I aren’t great at doing things at the same time as other people:  planting on the last frost date, reading the latest bestseller, eating turkey [at holidays].  I don’t know if it’s chronic procrastination or a dislike of team sports.

May planted a Yew tree on the university grounds where she is employed as a landscape gardener.  She carefully started this Yew tree with a cutting from a famous 3,000 year old specimen in Scotland and has carefully tended it for years.   The beautiful tree inspired one of the university’s professors to write an award-winning poem which has brought the university many accolades. To reward May for her part in cultivating the tree, the university grants her a month of paid vacation.

May takes her time and many pages to figure out what she wants to do with this gift of unscheduled time.  She reads an article about the death of an author, who sadly died while on tour promoting her first novel.  The outpouring of grief from her friends was overwhelming and shared on a webpage which May obsessively pours through.  People shared beautiful stories about Amber and it wasn’t her book or her writing, so much as her ability make people feel good being around her — to be a good friend:

What was obvious in post after post was that Amber had a talent for friendship, which, I suddenly understood, was something that one could be good at, like cooking or singing.  You could be good at being a friend, and no sooner had I had the thought, than I knew I was not.

Inspired to learn to be a friend, May decides to visit four friends from her past.  While she has uncertainties about these friends and her friendships with them — armed with hostess gifts, Emily Post’s guide to etiquette, and her rolling suitcase named Grendel — she sets off.

Her journey is filled with contemplation and mental journeys into the past.  Her mother was a recluse and, as May herself is venturing into this uncomfortable territory, she ponders the plight (and perhaps the advantages) of being sequestered:

People feel sorry for the housebound, but it can be a position of strength, a refusal to meet the world on its terms… The recluse decides when and to whom she will speak, access is limited.

After perusing Emily Post, May makes some rules for her visits, and shares some delightful musings about visiting.  She recounts that Hans Christian Anderson ruined his friendship with Charles Dickens by staying with him three weeks longer than planned.  And these great quotes:

It was a delightful visit — perfect, in being much too short (Jane Austen)

Fish and visitors stink in three days. (Benjamin Franklin)

I won’t go into the details of her visits, except to say that she meets with perfectly appointed guest rooms with matching guest towels and planned itineraries, often including tours of local gardens — afterwards followed by the host’s Facebook posts about her visit.  May muses on this:

…one of the questions I most wanted to ask my friends was: Can I see an average day in your life right now? A real day, not one curated for social media or filled with the best activities to entertain a visitor. On the one hand, it’s a simple question. On the other, it’s almost too intimate. And it might be impossible, because the presence of a visitor changes a day, no matter how close the friends are.

But May also gets to see her friends’ troubles — she wipes some tears, deals with precocious children, and receives unexpected affection.  Her friends aren’t perfect and can’t possibly meet May’s expectations.  But, she soon realizes one of the most important facets of friendship – overlooking the annoyances, the sharp edges, the unintended hurts — and learns to enjoy these friends just as they are — themselves.

This novel is not only about friendship and families — but also plants. Ms. Kane uses botanical interludes throughout the book. Delightful sketches of trees introduce each section with Latin names given in parentheses. These plant narratives provide cogent analogies between human and plant behavior.  These were entertaining for me, but may not be interesting for non-plant people.

I thoroughly enjoyed Rules for Visiting — it’s a quiet gem of a novel about a complex, wry, yet insecure woman in pursuit of friendship and human connection.  And this reader came away with a renewed sense of the importance of friendships — and gently reminded they require attention, forgiveness, risk, vulnerability —  but mostly love.

In the last chapter we are given May’s Rules for Visiting:

1. Do not arrive telling stories about the difficulties of your trip.
2. Bring a gift.
3. Make your bed and open the curtains.
4. Help in the kitchen, if you’re wanted.
5. Unless you are very good with children, wait until you hear at least one adult moving around before getting up in the morning.
6. Don’t feed the pets.
7. Don’t sit in your host’s place.
8. If you break something, admit it.
9. Say goodnight before bed.
10. Always send a thank-you note.

An advanced readers copy was provided by Penguin/Random House.