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Jo Walton – Among Others

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A book about books and fairies.

Publisher: Corsair (Tor)
Pages: 398
Type: Fiction
Age: Young Adult
ISBN: 978-1-472-10653-7
First Published: 18th January 2011
Date Reviewed: 25th August 2015
Rating: 3.5/5

Mori can see and talk to fairies. With her twin gone and her mother out to get her, too, she runs away and ends up living with her absent father and his sisters. Sent off to a prestigious boarding school, she’s out of place but finds solace in the library. She’ll try to stop her mother gaining power if she can and will read the entirety of the library’s science fiction section in the interim.

Among Others falls somewhere between fantasy and magical realism. A book about books, it’s mostly the thoughts of a reader with a bit of spell-casting thrown in.

Something that’s intriguing to discuss is the way Walton deals with magic in this book – it could be argued there is no magic. What exactly is magic, after all? The reader does not see much of Mori’s mother and there are no incantations or blood bindings – such things are spoken of but never really shown. This is not to say there is no magic as such, more that it could be argued the magic is the magic of nature – Mori finding comfort in nature and in her imagination. This is what makes the book fall between fantasy and magical realism. Whether it’s magic in the typical sense of the word is down to the reader’s own interpretation.

And that is a wonderful thing. That Among Others can be interpreted in various ways makes it special. When Mori speaks of adults having power over her are they really casting spells or is it her fear of the unknown, of these relatives who are strangers to her? Her mother is unsafe to be around – the authorities wouldn’t have sent her to her father if Mori were dreaming it – but is this mother actually a witch or is it more of a metaphor? Is Mori using the idea of magic to cope with abuse? In the time span of the book, a year or so (barring a glimpse of the past), Mori gains knowledge of sexual desire and has her first boyfriend. She also grows as a person, very much so, and another section that could be viewed as a metaphor concerns the last time Mori deals with her sister, and her grief.

I’d like to talk about the scene concerning Mori’s father – the person Mori has obviously taken her ‘reading genes’ from. The potential abuse is never mentioned again – Mori wipes over it but not in a way that suggests she needs to in order to cope with it, more that she does not, or did not, understand what was happening. Mori seems not to see the issue with it and never speaks of it again. As a reader you can see the issue with it, the potential for the book to take on a different tone; it leaves a bad taste in your mouth. But then Walton makes you question what you’ve read, whether accidentally (and, if so, this should have been rectified) or on purpose – Mori’s not phased by it and comes to enjoy her father’s company, as a meeting of equals if not as father and daughter, and whilst you are only ever in Mori’s head, nothing further happens or is asked. I don’t think one could say that the suggestion that Daniel is interested in his daughter is wrong, but certainly you’re challenged by it.

Another thing to love is the way Walton deals with Mori’s acquired disability. It’s always there but never takes over the plot; a good depiction of disability that states the pain and then lets Mori’s personality shine through.

So this is a book about books. It’s the diary of a reader, a list of what she’s reading with commentary. Sounds blissful, doesn’t it? And in a way it is; particularly for those who read science fiction and fantasy, Among Others is like coming home. References to classic science fiction abound (the book is set between 1979-1980). (This means that those who don’t read science fiction are less likely to understand the references, however it’s the sheer passion and the intellectual literary conversation that Walton emphasises, so it doesn’t really matter if you don’t catch every nuance.) In a way, however, it’s an issue – you are essentially reading the naval-gazing diary of a teenager who thinks she knows it all. A very ‘today I did this… and this…’ diary.

Now this isn’t so bad by itself, even if it is a bit boring sometimes to read about someone reading and doing little else – the problem is the name-dropping. This book reads as an attempt to gain love, it’s the written version of Walton putting her hand up and saying ‘author I love, notice me!’ Mori, or, as could be asserted given Walton’s age and preferences, Walton herself, gushes profusely about Ursula Le Guin (who incidentally blurbed the book, making this a nice cushy circle) and various other authors, most of whom are still around today and thus liable to read Walton’s love letter. It’s very much as though Walton has written this book to get noticed so she can get in with her idols and it’s all very cliquey and doesn’t feel very welcoming – because it’s not really. This book is for authors.

This is where the magic – be it stereotypical or not – gets let down. Pages about books and then, oh yes, I forgot, this is meant to be about magic, must add it in… and now I can get back to talking about myself and my love of science fiction. The book is very low on plot, the characters are fairly well developed but evidently not important (a great pity considering some of the content), and really all there is to take away – all you are given to take away – is a long list of books you should be reading. The ending, whilst powerful in its way, showing strength, doesn’t solve the puzzles Mori unwittingly sets for the reader.

Among Others will remind you why you seek out book clubs, festivals, and literary conversation. If you know the work of those referenced well, you’ll likely get more from it but on the whole a proper memoir about someone’s reading life and a straight out fantasy book would be better choices.

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Bernhard Schlink – The Reader

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War comes with a price.

Publisher: Phoenix (Orion)
Pages: 216
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-753-80470-4
First Published: 1995
Date Reviewed: 23rd August 2015
Rating: 5/5

Original language: German
Original title: Der Vorleser (The Reader)
Translated by: Carol Brown Janeway

At the age of fifteen, Michael has an affair with an older woman. Hanna entices him but he notes the distance she keeps between them, the way she avoids discussing her past. A few years later, whilst studying law, Michael sits in on the trial of several women who were guards in the SS. Amongst them is Hanna.

The Reader is a fantastic book. It’s compelling, informative, and quite moving, too.

Let’s start with the history the novel is based on: Schlink introduces the reader to the way war crimes of Germans were dealt with by the German courts. You get to see the views of the everyday people of their history and the characters run the gambit – people want justice, children dislike their parents even if the parents didn’t play a role (they dislike them for not fighting against the Nazis), and then you’ve Michael who doesn’t defend the war in any sense but looks at those who participated (via Hanna) in an objective light.

Of course whether or not it’s truly objective, so to speak, is down to the reader. Because the personality and personal history of Hanna is so intrinsic to who she is at the trial, and because of the affair, it could be inferred that Michael is biased towards her somewhat. He doesn’t believe she’s innocent – she’s not – but he looks at her in light of her choices, the reasons for them. (‘No, Hanna had not decided in favour of crime. She had decided against a promotion at Siemens, and had fallen into a job as a guard.’) Schlink, through Michael, then, doesn’t just question Hanna’s involvement in the war, he questions her choices away from it. He questions her as a person, questions the decisions she makes. Hanna is all about honesty when it comes to the trial – whilst the other women lie, she simply affirms or denies. Michael sees in her behaviour someone who knows this is what should happen. Where personality is involved we see the affect illiteracy has on Hanna’s answers. Beyond all else, it seems to Michael, is Hanna’s worry of being exposed as illiterate. Keeping hidden her lack of education, in a place where being able to read and write was is, is more important than avoiding jail.

This is where the idea of ‘the reader’ takes to the stage; this book is about far more, literary-wise, than Michael’s reading aloud in the bedroom. Michael realises that far from making the noted weak women of the concentration camps become her slaves, Hanna’s assigning them to read to her is an attempt to make comfortable what little time they have left. Although she later learns to read and write, Hanna is very much a reader.

In the subtext there is a question: is Hanna selfish? She provides money for a survivor to give to charities – in her, Hanna’s, name. She takes Michael to bed though he is underage and she affectively on the run. She gets those bound for the gas chambers to read to her. Are these displays of selfish or unselfish behaviour?

Both Hanna and Michael take control. Hanna controls Michael in the bedroom – not literally, but in experience – and Michael later controls their contact when she’s in jail. Michael uses Hanna’s imprisonment to atone for his guilt but only so much – he records himself narrating fiction but never goes to visit her. He exploits the literal and emotional distance between them.

Precisely because she was both close and removed in such an easy way, I didn’t want to visit her. I had the feeling she could only be what she was to me at an actual distance… How could we meet face to face without everything that had happened between us coming to the surface?

Michael liked the idea of Hanna and the teenage view of perfect love he had, he doesn’t want to spoil it; he doesn’t want to grow up, in fact – every woman he is with in his life is compared to Hanna. And he doesn’t want to face what’s happened. When Hanna leaves Michael, the reader will note she’s (finally) doing the right thing by him, taking her past with her, letting him be a child again and not rolled up in the affects of war, but of course he doesn’t see that himself.

This book isn’t atoning for involvement; it is the case that it shows how people could be pulled in – by the promise of more pay, for example – because as we know that’s a lot of what it was. We can compare Schlink’s writing of the events of WWII with Irene Némirovsky’s Suite Française: Némirovsky wrote of the war whilst she was living it as a person of Jewish heritage hiding from the Nazis. Both Schlink and Némirovsky show the human side of the Nazi party, or, rather, the human side to those who were at the bottom, the low-ranking soldiers who did what they were told to do, or at the very least did what they felt they had to do. Of course in Némirovsky’s case this is more profound, she’s giving a voice to fictional versions of the people who were hunting her down as she wrote, but both Némirovsky and Schlink write in such a way that asks for thought, does not suggest forgiveness nor ask for it.

It’s almost too obvious to state, but there is a lot of information about Auschwitz in The Reader, and about the role of women in the SS. The books ends in a way you may feel it ‘ought’ whilst showing there are far more reasons behind it than the ones on the surface.

A brief word on the writing – beautiful. Simple, to the point, and full of sub-textual imagery. The words may technically be Janeway’s but Schlink’s prose seeps through.

The Reader is a book of great magnitude. The potential for impact is high, the content hard to read but invaluable, the journey sad but necessary. It is a book for everyone.

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Mary Ann Shaffers and Annie Barrows – The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society

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Turnips, books, and occupation.

Publisher: Bloomsbury
Pages: 238
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-408-81026-2
First Published: 29th July 2008
Date Reviewed: 14th June 2015
Rating: 5/5

Juliet is stuck. Her last book did well but she’s having trouble finding a new topic to write about. She begins to receive letters from a man in Guernsey who bought a book she’d sold to a second-hand shop. Dawsey introduces her to his life and friends, the story of their makeshift book club, and wartime Guernsey. It’s hers for the taking.

The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society is a wonderful little book that has earned its place in every bookshop. (Is there a reader who hasn’t encountered it somewhere?) Jolly, fun, but balanced by the solemnity of World War II, it provides both a great escape and an excellent history lesson about a place mainland classes forget.

The book is told through letters, telegrams, and a couple of diary entries. The correspondents are many but it’s not difficult to keep track of who’s who – the only reason you’ll fail is if you worry about it. The authors have given each character a unique voice and personalities shine through the text. You will know these people extremely well by the time you’ve finished. You’ll know more about them than you would if the book had been told in usual prose. The writers are open, unrestricted as they are by thoughts of anyone else reading the letters than their intended (fictional) friend. Given the nature of letters between friends, the book is not bogged down by detail. You form your image of the characters naturally, without the usual ‘my hair is… my eyes are…’ and it takes the pressure off; you never have to wonder if you’re picturing them correctly.

This is a story within a story. It’s about the composition of a potential new work of fiction or non-fiction inside a larger tale. It’s as much about Guernsey as Juliet’s personal journey through life, about the beginnings of a new way of life, and like Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca it’s also about someone who is no longer there (though for entirely different reasons). You get the wishes, the relationships, and the mundane day-to-day. The troubles, the fun, the history.

And history is inevitably important to this book. Shaffer (for we can assume it’s her1) spends a lot of time on the German occupation of Guernsey, ensuring the fiction she writes weaves around it convincingly. She shows the hard times, the evacuations, the punishments, the food scarcity, but she also shows the humanity of the German officers, reminding her readers that there was a fair amount of ease, some respect between the occupied and occupiers. The name of the book, quirky as it is, links into the rationing and shows people trying to make the best of a bad situation.

So, not surprisingly, this is also a book about books. Books bring Juliet and the islanders together and there are explorations of reading groups and passages and, on a general scale, what reading means, the place it has in our lives. Literature carries the story along.

In truth any review I wrote could not do this book justice. It is hard to put into words how great an experience it is. If the characters see Guernsey as home, see those who arrive as coming home, then reading the story is like coming home. You are welcomed with open arms. The characters could be real, the authors the fictional people.

The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society is exquisite. It’s an escape, it’s a laugh, it’s a lesson. There’s a reason it’s everywhere and has been for some time. Let yourself be drawn to the characters, let them whisk you to their post-war Guernsey.

1 Shaffer wrote the majority – Barrows, her niece, took over when her aunt was too ill to carry on.

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Raymond Jean – Reader For Hire

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Hiring power.

Publisher: Peirene Press
Pages: 160
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-908-67022-9
First Published: 1986 in French; 15th June 2015 in English
Date Reviewed: 8th June 2015
Rating: 4.5/5

Original language: French
Original title: La Lectrice (The Reader)
Translated by: Adriana Hunter

Marie-Constance has a nice speaking voice. She puts an advert in the paper, offering her services as a reader. She takes on her first three clients: wheelchair user, Eric, a 14 year old coddled by his mother; a widowed countess who may be old but will not be beaten; a managing director who wants to be able to impress at dinners but has no time to read. And it seems these people need her and need books more than she expected.

Reader For Hire is an exploratory novella that looks at the power of people in the context of the power of books, of reading. Open to interpretation, it offers a simple character-driven narrative and plenty of pleasurable reading moments.

There are many elements to this book. One: it’s a book about book. The chapters are full of quotations, mini analysis and odes to reading. Marie-Constance favours classics but there are other sorts of work. Make no mistake, you’ll be adding titles to your wishlist.

The biggest, or strongest, element, is power. The power of reading, what it can do and make you feel, how it expands the mind and can inform an opinion (that may lead to action). Be it Marie-Constance’s voice and manner of delivery or simple just the text, the books have an impact on the listeners. One ends up in hospital, another supporting a strike, and there’s the almost inevitable person who hires Marie-Constance but is more interested in the bedroom. (On this subject Jean asks us to consider further – is it stereotypical perversion or is it specifically to do with the reading?) The readings open minds. It gives the listeners a small voice where they’ve not had one for a while.

It could be said that Marie-Constance is the one with the power. She tends to choose the texts, and she chooses how to deliver them. It’s her presence in her listeners’ lives that changes them. And those who are listened to by society want to listen in return, to set reading on a literal stage and admire it.

It’s also her role as a reader that lands people in trouble. These troubles push her and in some cases her listeners, to re-think, to push a little harder for what they want – unconsciously. There is a place to interpret the book as being about subjugation. Listeners and Marie-Constance are pushed back. It seems that in educating themselves, thinking for themselves further than others may wish them to, they end up in trouble. Marie-Constance has to explain herself on various occasions – she’s just reading, isn’t she?

Reader For Hire asks you to enjoy reading but always question it, study its effect; to look at books and reading in a set few ways, to see the meaning in Marie-Constance herself.

At once simple and complex, this book about books is satisfactory in itself but will make you want to seek out others. By this time it’s likely Marie-Constance is booked until Christmas so it’s a good thing her story is available to all.

I received this book for review from the publisher.

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Mikhail Elizarov – The Librarian

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Taking fandom a little too far.

Publisher: Pushkin Press
Pages: 408
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-782-27027-0
First Published: 2007 in Russian; 2015 in English
Date Reviewed: 7th March 2015
Rating: 4/5

Original language: Russian
Original title: Библиотекарь (Bibliotyekar) (Librarian)
Translated by: Andrew Bromfield

In the mid 1900s, a man called Gromov writes several books that don’t do particularly well and are thus forgotten. As time moves on, however, various readers start to find an inherent value in his work. They form ‘libraries’ of people and these libraries often fight to the death to obtain original copies (the only copies worth bothering about) and supremacy. Alexei finds himself in this world; due to his uncle’s death he was looking to sell an apartment and was accosted by these ‘readers’. They want him to be their leader.

The Librarian is a somewhat ambiguous book that looks at obsession, power, and the Soviet Union in a darkly humorous satirical manner. Heavy on gore and strict in its dealings, the content presents a rather unique premise to study.

Elizarov takes the basic idea of literary interest and runs with it. The ‘readers’, as they call themselves, are in essence fans who have taken their loyalty too far. Elizarov essentially looks at the way people find meaning in books and heightens the effect, giving the books power to change readers’ lives. Of course there is always the unanswered question: did Gromov know about this effect? (And did he plan the effect to happen?) This is cause for some of the humour because Elizarov provides extracts from the texts for your perusal and these extracts are undeniably dull. Whilst it is never studied, there is reason to believe that Gromov’s work is truly mundane to the extent that it means Elizarov’s characters are stereotypical fanboys and fangirls. Essentially, we’re looking at the extremely dedicated side of fandom here, the people who find meanings no one else would, and whilst Elizarov isn’t laughing at this concept itself, the way it is placed on those of older generations makes it easier to accept.

So, whether ‘true’ or not, these people are finding power in Gromov’s books. Regular people who work in factories; mothers and daughters; old ladies in nursing homes. The various books when read in one sitting with rapt attention instil inhuman strength, dominance of mind, incredible happiness, beautiful (if unreal) memories and so forth. A lot of the humour can be found in the first section of the book, which reads like a factual report and details the sudden coming to power of a group of elderly women who break through the ward doors, kill all the staff, and take over the building.

This book is very, very violent. Elizarov doesn’t shy from the details, presenting battles in all their graphic detail. And much of the book is about battles, which means it can be hard going. This said, it’s difficult to become numbed to the violence here, as it can be in other books (The Hunger Games comes to mind). You may find it repetitive after a while, but the battles are all as horrific as the first and you never get used to it.

There is a lot of commentary here about the Soviet Union. I can’t pretend to know a lot about this slice of history and it’s fair to say you may feel as though you’ve missed something if it’s not a period you’re particularly familiar with, however considering everything I’ve said above it should be noted that there is enough to ‘get’ in this book that doesn’t depend on knowledge. The basic ideas are obvious and aspects like false memories can be viewed as possible propaganda.

In view of knowledge, however, the writing must be examined. Be it due to the original prose or simply the decisions of the translator, The Librarian is rather dry. It can be difficult to read and unfortunately the eloquence and rather exceptional language doesn’t help. It’s fair to say some of the points and subtlety are lost in the words and where the plot is composed mainly of battles this is more prominent than it could have been otherwise. There is also the fact that many of the characters are referred to by both their full names (and patronymic) and a pet name, and then also a ‘comrade’ name and additional pet names; it’s more confusing than your average Russian novel may be. This, coupled with the constant usage of full names and a basic lack of characterisation (this is very much a plot/meaning-driven novel) takes the issue further. The translation comes with a great many proofreading errors, enough that it does impact the reading.

The book changes its focus towards the end, and this is where most of the ambiguity kicks in. There are a fair number of possibilities but you may still be surprised where it ends up. It could be argued that it finishes without finishing, forever loitering on the borders of an ending, however this is part of the point and something to take heed of when you come to sort through your thoughts. Much can be said: should we consider Alexei the author of the book? Have Alexei’s dreams come true, albeit in a roundabout way? What is Elizarov suggesting by the intimation that all these books can be read one after the other?

The Librarian is an exceptional example of hidden meanings and messages; making the reader work it out doesn’t get much stronger than this. It is dull, writing wise, and it is graphic, and it is absolutely, incredibly, bonkers, but it is also a very good book.

Unique and fascinating, be careful not to let yourself be too enthralled by The Librarian; you never know how much the cost of such a love may be.

I received this book for review from the publisher.

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