Among Others by Jo Walton

The dedication for this book is special and a little unusual: “This is for all the libraries in the world, and the librarians who sit there day after day lending books to people.” Some librarians might quibble with the concept of sitting day after day but it is the acknowledgement that counts here and one should not lose sight of that. Books are a major character in this novel and all it is missing is a list of books referred to for the reader to make use of as she or he wishes. It is in diary form and extends from May 1st, 1975 to February 20th, 1980. I love the accidental synchronicity that occurred for me i.e. finishing the book on February 20th, 2013. Just might be something in that.Among Others
It is the story of Morganna Rachel Phelps Markova and it includes a great deal of reading, some magic, grief over a sister, a physical disability, a divorce between her parents, a loving aunt and two special grandfathers, finding friends and experiencing a first love relationship and even more.
Some of the books read and discussed include those by Ursula Le Guin, Susan Cooper, Thomas Hardy, Dickens, Shakespeare, Anne McCaffrey, Tolkien, Arthur Ransome, Mary Renault, C.S Lewis, Robert Heinlein and many many more.
The setting is Wales which is fascinating for the place names alone. The first sentence for instance, – “The Phurnacite factory in Abercwmboi killed all the trees for two miles around.” How can one not read on? This first entry is five years before the next entry. Here’s how Morganna closes that first entry: “Think of this as a memoir…Fiction’s nice. Fiction lets you select and simplify. This isn’t a nice story, and this isn’t an easy story. But it is a story about fairies, so feel free to think of it as a fairy story. It’s not like you’d believe it anyway.” She sure had my attention with that.
And here is part of the closing paragraph: “It’s my intention to carry on being alive in the world, well, until I die. At Easter I’ll go to Glasgow and see what science fiction fandom is like. Next June I’ll take my exams and pass them, and have qualifications. Then I’ll do A Levels, as it best works out. I’ll go to university. I’ll live, and read, and have friends, a karass (circle), people to talk to. I’ll grow and change and be myself. I’ll belong to libraries wherever I go. Maybe eventually I’ll belong to libraries on other planets…I’ll be reading my book.”

Jo Walton is a native of Wales. She lives in Montreal.

Summary of Dickens’ Little Dorrit Read-along Experience

The Dickens’ read-along with my friend extended from November 2012 to almost the end of February 2013. Reading more or less Issue by Issue as they were published gave a different flavour to the experience as it kept one always conscious of what it might have been like to be following this story as it was published: a little like following Downton Abbey on a weekly basis on PBS. For anyone who likes notes for a Dickens’ read and is considering Little Dorrit do check out the posts back in the archives and see if they are helpful to you.

I became  most aware of the techniques Dickens’ employed to ensure sufficient interest in buying the next issue.It was also interesting that in the last issue he hurriedly tied everything up as neatly and as quickly as possible because there as no need for any further suspense.

It seems clear looking back that it was not about wealth or happiness or marriage for these are far less interesting than poverty and squalor, unhappiness and maltreatment, failure or lonliness. The marriage of Arthur and Amy is anti-climactic and I, for one, felt a little let down for some reason or other. They “went down into a modest life of usefulness and happiness…to give a mother’s care …to Fanny’s neglected children no less than their own..and to give a tender nurse and friend to Tip for some few years.” Doyce is totally reconciled with Arthur, Pet is at home with her mother, Amy shakes John Chivery’s hand, Mr. Pancks has become chief clerk to Doyce and Clennam and has Flora on one arm and Maggy on the other as the happy couple signed the register.

Was anything  not resolved to your satisfaction?

In his introduction to my Modern Library edition of Little Dorrit, David Gates writes that after 1850, Dickens’ novels “tended to be more elaborately constructed and harsher and less buoyant in tone than his earlier works”. These late novels include Bleak House (1853), Hard Times (1854), Little Dorrit (1857), A Tale of Two Cities (1859), and Great Expectations (1861).

I have not read Bleak House and am considering it as my next Dickens read. Or a reread of A Tale of Two Cities? Or Edwin Drood? hmmmm   Or perhaps it is time to read one of the novels written prior to 1850 and see if Gates’ observations hold true?

Well, first I will watch the BBC video version of Little Dorrit with Matthew McFadyen, Claire Foy, Tom Courtney as William Dorrit, Alun Armstrong as Flintwinch, Eddy Marsan as Pancks, Amanda Redman as Mrs. Merdle and James Fleet as Frederick Dorrit.  Anyone seen this?

The Invisible Wall by Harry Bernstein

The author of this memoir was 93 when he began to write it which was after the death of his wife Ruby. He was born in 1910. The memoir has a sequel titled The Dream. The setting is an English mill town in Lancashire: a small town and a street with an “invisible wall” dividing Jewish families on one side from Christian families on the other. “Actually,” Harry writes, what we had here was a miniature ghetto…and though the distance from one side to the other…was only a few yards…the distance socially could have been miles and miles.” (Prologue)As a memoir, this is particularly powerful and genuine. The working conditions/climate in the tailoring shops where Harry’s father worked and also his sister Lily,the social restrictions and barriers, the parents’ struggle to raise a family and keep a home,are very clearly presented and the reader easily enters into these various aspects of Harry’s family life. He inspires strong empathy.Invisible Wall

The love story involves Harry’s sister Lily who falls in love with a Christian boy. Harry is drawn into their story when he discovers the romance.
The war changes things on the street. Harry describes the changes: “The war, it seemed, had almost completely destroyed the invisible wall that had separated us, bringing the two sides together. Many young man on the street are called up including Lily’s young man Arthur. After the war, things revert back to old patterns. Arthur and Lily see each other secretly and Harry knows this. Eventually the mother finds out and the parents follow Jewish customs and consider their daughter to be dead. As Harry describes it: “And this time too the Christians may have been just as shocked and as fearful for their own daughters and sons.”
Harry and the family left England in 1922 although as he says “I never really left the street. It was always there in my mind through the years that followed.” Forty years later he did return just in time to see the old buildings before they were demolished and he finds one of the people he knew when he lived there.
A memoir that is well worth a read: told with patience, humility and the uncluttered viewpoint of one who remembers with the clarity and non-judgmental vision of a child which is what Harry was during his time there.

Laws of Conflict by Cora Harrison

Here are some comments from www.coraharrison:

The Burren Mysteries

With her superb attention to detail, Cora Harrison brings medieval Ireland into vivid life, being equally skilful at portraying the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Mara is up there with the great fictional detectives.   – Historical Novel Society, Editors’ Choice Titles for August 2009

Ellis Peters and Peter Tremayne fans who have yet to discover Harrison will be overjoyed. – Publishers Weekly starred review

Outstanding both for its attention to detail and historical correctness. Historical mystery fans won’t want to miss this one. – Library journal

Laws in Conflict is the eighth novel in the series of Burren novels. The year is 1512 and the setting in this case is the City of Galway. Mara, Brehon (judge) of the Burren goes to Galway with her law students to see if she can free a former citizen of the Burren who has been caught in Galway and accused of stealing a meat pie. His name is Sheedy and Mara has dealt with him before in the Burren: he is a simple soul who cannot read or write and Mara is convinced he stole the meat pie simply because he was hungry and he had access to it. Laws are different in Galway though and the theft of items over a certain value is punishable by death. King Richard the third granted a charter to Galway giving the mayor all the rights to taxes and the responsibility for maintenance. The mayor is elected and “has power over life and death” and “the power to tax everything that comes into the city.” The present mayor, James Lynch has been in power for 5 years. He is not a trained lawyer. Galway was ruled by “a mixture of English law and Roman law, and both were equally cruel to those who infringed even minor examples of these laws”. Mara tells her friend Ardal O’Lochlainn the chieftain of the most numerous clans of the Burren that she is “thinking of interfering in the affairs of another kingdom, or state” and she will come up against “conflictus Laws in Conflictlegum” or conflicting laws and this is what leads to the journey of Mara and her law students, including one young woman, Fiona, to Galway.

The state of the law during this time period is a most interesting aspect of these books. “In Dublin the law was exactly the same as in England, but traditionally Galway was ruled by Roman law. It was only in the last few years that English law had begun to prevail. Mara was trained in Roman law which is why she is prepared to take on this unusual situation.

The simple case of the theft of a meat pie becomes a small drop in a big bucket rather quickly when the murder of a young Spaniard occurs and the main suspect is the son of the present mayor and the circumstantial evidence does not add up for Mara or her law students.

A compelling look at life in general in early Ireland and also at law schools of the time, trade in busy ports such as Galway and political organizations of kingdoms and cities of the medieval period. Apparently tourists can see Lynch’s Castle  and Blake’s Castle today as well as many of the places in this story including The King’s Head Inn.

If you think Cora Harrison’s series might appeal to you I highly recommend that you start with My Lady Judge. Also that you go visit her website as shown at the top of this review.

Away by Jane Urquhart

I first read Away very soon after it was first published in 1993 and, on this read, was quite surprised to find that I had remembered so little. In fact, it was more a feeling that I remembered and a vision of a great white house on the shores of a lake. I also recalled a somewhat “romantic” feeling. Well, there was definitely a dreamy quality in the lives of especially one of the three women, Mary, whose story comes first and whose experience gives the book its title.Away Mary lived on Rathlin Island (Ireland) and 140 years before the book opens had discovered the remains of a wreck on the beach and waded through barrels of whiskey and “fifty clanking teapots” “and found an exhausted young man who, when she grabbed his shirt in her fists, opened two sea-green eyes and spoke the name Moira before falling once again into semi-consciousness.” Her mother and a priest and other islanders found her early in the afternoon “surrounded by cabbages and teapots, asleep in the arms of a dead young sailor.” “Those who looked down to the beach that morning crossed themselves and turned to Mary’s mother with compassion in their eyes. They knew, and she knew, that Mary was away.” And so it begins. It was said that “the islanders knew of the ones who lived under the waters and this abandoned body clearly belonged to one of them.”
“At first it was believed that Mary would die; that she would waste away, abandoning a body that had already been “left behind”. But this did not happen. She marries Brian and has two children, Liam and Eileen. Eileen is the second woman in the chain of three and the third is her daughter Esther who opens and closes the story. In Esther’s reflections near the end of the story we read  “In this family all young girls are the same young girl and all old ladies are the same old lady.” In this statement is a secret I think that helps one figure out something of the meaning of life. I love this book much more now on the second read than on the first and much more than the big white house on the shore of a lake will remain in my memory now.