Review: Among Others by Jo Walton

Among Others by Jo Walton

The Phurnacite factory in Abercwmboi killed all the trees for two miles around.

Sometimes, there are books that stare straight into my heart and soul and reflect them back. For me, this was one of those. There is probably no such thing as a perfect book; Among Others, however, was exactly the right book at the right time, and that is not something to be underestimated. It rekindled my appreciation and love for libraries, it spoke a lot of my truths, and it allowed me to remember my sixteen and seventeen year old self with more compassion and understanding than I’ve ever managed. So, obviously, this review is enormously biased and I am well aware that this book may not be for everyone.

It’s 1979. Mor, who has lived her whole life in the Welsh Valleys surrounded by a varied and sprawling family, among fairies and wilderness and magic, has been forced to live with her (somewhat useless) English father whom she has never met and who promptly sends her to boarding school. Her twin sister is dead, her mother is mad and possibly evil, and she is alone. Among Others is written as a diary, as Mor turns to books and journalling, observing the world around her with sharp eyes and a certain dry humour while trying to make sense of what happened, what is happening, and how to move on. The fairy/magic aspect of the world is some of the most convincingly real that I have ever come across; odd and earthy and tied to the landscape, relating to the “real world” in strange ways. Mor is an unreliable narrator in the way that most grieving people are, and the story just… unfolds. Slow, unhurried, and yet still at times shocking, heartrending and heartwarming. If I was told tomorrow that I was only allowed one book for the rest of my life, it would be a close call between Among Others, Unquenchable Fire, and the dictionary (but which dictionary?!).

Rating: Read this book. Go to the library.

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Book Review: Saints and Adventurers by Frances Gapper

saints and adventurers by frances gapper

On the day my brother died, when I was fourteen, a grey, wet, windy day in late August, my grandmother drowned the cat.

This is another one of the Women’s Press books that I’ve managed to get my hands on. It’s a story of grief, madness and menstruation; a work full of transformations. In many ways, it was very much of its time. And then again, the book was just full of characters that I recognised – people from my life who had snuck into the pages and were waving out at me.

It’s told by Jenny, who is growing up after her brother’s death. Her mother will not talk about her feelings, is a tightly controlled and deeply angry woman. And her grandmother is the opposite in so many ways; a Corsican wise-woman plying her trade in Surbiton. It’s a dizzying portrait of adolescence, of all the different ways to go mad. There are angels that turn up and cats that die and a father who simply has no idea and spends all his time writing a book about butterflies and emerging only when the tea runs out.

There are many moments when I laughed out loud. And many when I cried. Jenny’s best friend, Alicia, is starving herself and recites poetry backwards. Her mother retreats into a world she can control. Her grandmother drowns cats and fixes electrics and talks about blood and death and magic. Jenny’ sort-of boyfriend is endearing, in a hopeless way; his parents are Freudian psychoanalysts and tried to raise him to be normal (it backfired). And Jenny is lost and wandering, trying to grow up and not knowing how or what it means.

It’s a rich, rich work that spoke to me very deeply. It didn’t offer solutions or even take clear sides. Here was a family being a family, which is a much more complicated endeavour than most people think. There’s religion and sex and all the strange things that get thrown up during adolescence and a wry sense of humour that will suddenly turn in on itself, laughing at the notion of the book. Spirits and ghosts and humans. Basically, I really really enjoyed this book but it’s very hard to review!

Rating: read this book. Climb a hill and scream.

Book Review: Planetfall by Emma Newman

planetfall-emma-newman

Every time I come down here I think of my mother.

This is a striking work. It’s the only thing I’ve read by Emma Newman – a standalone science fiction novel about exploration, grief and god. Unusually for me, I had to take a break from reading it in the middle rather than just reading through. This is because the point-of-view character, Renata “Ren” Ghali, has a deeply seated anxiety issue that, although far more extreme than my own experience, managed to trigger some of my anxiety. Nevertheless, I came back and finished it because it is brilliant and I needed to know what happened.

Planetfall is written in the first person, so we are intimately entangled with Ren’s fears and feelings. And she has a lot of them, relayed to us with utter precision. Ren is the primary 3D printing engineer on a colony on an unknown planet, and the facts about the colony are drip-fed to us in a way that feels very natural; they are people who came here looking for God, following the Pathfinder Lee Suh-Mi. They are the only inhabitants of the planet, or they should be, and their colony is built at the base of a huge organic structure that they refer to as God’s City.

And then a man arrives: Sung-Soo, a stranger and the grandson of Lee Suh-Mi. To most of the community, this is at minimum a cause for celebration and at most a sign from God that soon Lee Suh-Mi will return. For Ren, it is the cause of gutwrenching anxiety and fear because she has been keeping a secret ever since planetfall, and Sung-Soo’s presence may just unravel everything.

This book is a study in narrative tension; we know there is a secret, but not what it is. We know that Mack, the charismatic ringmaster, is the only person other than Ren who knows. But what happened? And how? And, just as importantly, does Ren even remember? And how can Ren cope with her anxiety and her mental health when, at the core of it, is a secret so big that she can barely think about it? The plot is unwound through the present, but also through memories of family and friends, of leaving Earth and arriving on this planet. It’s a fragmented portrait of a fragmented person, written with skill.

As I said, I had to take a break in the middle of reading this, so the beginning and the end are a bit disjointed in my head. Against all the odds, I actually found it uplifting by the end (but perhaps that’s just me). Planetfall is inhabited by well-observed and realised characters, in a detailed and believable world. And I loved it, despite the fact that I kept having to take breaks to go and cry and once nearly had a panic attack because Emma Newman’s description of Ren having a panic attack was too accurate. It’s a tense, tight mystery that encompasses grief and guilt and lies and was, at it’s heart, wonderfully human. I highly recommend it, although perhaps step with caution if anxiety is an issue for you.

Rating: enjoy this book, but remember that trying to find God never ends well in science-fiction.