11 January 2014

Sunny-Yellow Bookcase: A Review of Among Others, Jo Walton

My childhood bedroom had a sunny-yellow bookcase filled with stories about witches entangled with cakes, poems surrounding alligators in soup, epic tales about mice, geese, dogs, pigs, rabbits and spiders, mysteries for scaring, books for giggling, books for cuddling and best of all books to feed growing imaginations. As my shelf transitioned from illustrated stories into chapter books about giant peaches, golden tickets, sleuths, boarding school shenanigans and secret entrances into magical lands my favourite themes have remained relatively unchanged. I find witches enthralling and oddly associate coconut-encrusted tripled layered cake (too delicious must be enchanted) with the occult.

 I wholeheartedly believe in passages behind bookshelves, worlds through looking glasses and creatures living under toadstools, bridges and dew drops. 

Of all my yellow-shelved books two were above all others. As my dolls, barbies, trinkets and eventually books made the trek to garage for sale those two and only those, were safely stored until today where they can be found on my son's burgundy bookshelf. They are not special, there is no first edition allure to either of them. In fact, one has a publishing mistake with pages bound and printed incorrectly, and the other, well the other when I ponder a little more is special after-all. I have spent many a day trying to find this very book or at least one that is similar:  a fairy book filled with poems, short stories and songs that I could then pass down to all the little ones in my life. I believe we all have one book that has stayed close to our heart as we grow, one book that never really leaves us as we move into adulthood, one book that defines who we are. 

And so with Come Follow Me by Gyo Fujikawa deeply buried into my reading soul, I found great joy in reading Among Others by Jo Walton. I realize I am late to the party with Jo receiving not only the Nebula but Hugo for best novel of 2012. To be completely truthful I have been avoiding this book for some time. Not a huge fan of reading what is recommended by the general public or Oprah or people called Heather (Indigo Books-mega company in Canada) I resisted. Plus the itty-bitty tidbits I gathered about the book cast a tale of boarding school sadness and teenage outcasting. While Mori the protagonist does go to  a traditional British boarding school and indeed is a seemingly misfit it is not really about that.  It is about fairies.

Surprisingly, the novel is in the form of a personal diary with Mori's word intended for a reading audience. Whether her tale will eventually reach the public as she grows into womanhood is unanswered but there is a cast to the plot that one day that will come to pass.   Walton's ability to keep the beauty of this story sound while staying true to the world view of a 15 year old is remarkable. Even though she forgoes the power of the third person omniscient she keeps the reader locked tight within Mori's teenage perceptions without it coming across as juvenile. 

Questions arise as you make your way through the plot. The magic that imbues Mori's life, is it real or a teenager's overactive imagination created to help with her grief? Yes, there is grief, there is lose, and as mentioned there are fairies, very real fairies. There has been much spoken on the SF element to the book.  Mori loves science fiction, spending a majority of her time hidden within the stories of the great writers. Practically every diary entry mentions a famous novel or author. If there is one flaw to this book, it is this. At times I felt outside of the joke, not quite perceiving the full intentions that Walton was trying to convey. The barrage of titles distracts from the message especially if you have no framework to guide you along. 

The inherent nature of story-telling is the ability to share and have it mean different things to different people.  Among Others will always be about fairies for me. It could have sat comfortably on my sunny-yellow bookcase, sharing secrets with my other treasured childhood memories.

2 January 2014

Bibliophile: A Review of Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, Robin Sloan

There is an element of magic in reading consecutive books that fall into similar themes all by happen-stance. As gleefully mentioned in my last post, I have a heap of books to work through that continues to grow even though I am supposed to be on a "library-only" policy. The growing mass is all thanks to the newly discovered SF used bookstore I found mere blocks from my house. Rather shocking because it is literally down the street and I have literally been in this store countless times never to be able to find the SF section until yesterday when I spied a small sign pointing up leading me to a third floor wonder world. You think you know your neighbourhood! I came home happily owning a collective anthology of the first three Dragonriders of Pern novels and China Mieville's Un Lun Dun, an author I am slowly, ever so slowly trying to appreciate.

From this growing pile, I was gifted two gems both with plots interlaced with the love of reading and the joys of a paper bound novel. I feel intoxicated from the printed word this week, excited with SF after a rather lackluster year end. Nothing like a good book followed by another to put a girl back on track for 2014.

 Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan hooked me in by the end of page one. I found myself gorging on a chapter or two then putting the book to the side, all in an attempt to delay the reading process.  With good books, really good books, I like to drag them out as long as I am able.  Easily a day read, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore has tinges  of an Agatha Christie mystery to it, wrapped within a secret society quest all tightly bound up within the framework of present day mysticism. I find it remarkable that over the years "quest" books like these always fall into my hands by accident. I never research them, never think to even quest for those very quest-like books in my search for new novels. Quest books are the most allusive of all the genres, seemingly to appear when you most need them.  

Sloan's writing is not superb, this is not a literary masterpiece but it is a good read and at times that is all one really is looking for: a plot that moves, an uncertainty of what may come next and a cast of characters we want to spend time with.  Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore finds our protagonist laid-off with few skills to call his own looking for a job. Needing a job, any job, his newly acquired midnight-shift clerk position at a 24-hour bookstore leads us and him on a quest for the seemingly supernatural within the streets of present day San Francisco. This is a romance with the printed word, the power of print at a time when e-readers rule the world and bookstores seem to be disappearing faster than movie rental stores.  Not wanting to give too much away, the level of intrigue that builds through the book takes a mundane turn at the denouement. More a reflection of my own levels at which I want abstract surrealism, I was disappointed but began to see the benefits to Sloan's ending. Most times our search for life and the answers to our existence can be best found in the simplest of forms.