Happily, I have had time for reading books (in fact, lots of time on my commute) and I've been reading a few things that I've really enjoyed. I've been in the mood for fantasy and fantastical books lately, which has been helped by a couple of book group picks- the magic realism of The Master and Margarita and the sci-fi of Inverted World (which was quite strange, and a lot of us found the ending fairly unsatisfying). My two most recent reads have been Among Others by Jo Walton and Sea Hearts by Margo Lanagan, both of which I liked so much I wanted to talk about them a little bit.
Among Others is about Morwenna (Mor), a teenage girl from Wales in the 1970s, whose life is set in disarray when she and her twin sister, with the help of the fairies, foil a plot by her mother to magically take over the world. The story is set in the aftermath of this, with Mor living in an English boarding school under the care of her father, who left when she was young, and her twin sister dead. It's a strange fantasy book, with the details of the magical confrontation never really clear, and the magic itself so peripheral and, as Mor puts it, "plausibly deniable", so that you could argue that it is not really fantasy at all. But it is a book about fantasy, as Mor is an avid reader of fantasy and sci-fi, and writes about the books she is reading regularly in her diary.
On the one hand, this book frustrated me- occasionally Mor's reflections come across as fairly moralising, and there was a distressing incident with her father that is kind of brushed aside quickly. Also, it is written as a teenage girl's diary, and that is a form of writing that can be annoying. But it also really charmed me, maybe not least because I was once a teenage girl living in a boarding school, avidly reading fantasy (though not so much sci-fi). I think a lot of readers will probably relate, at least a little, to the character. It's also a lovely coming-of-age (with books) type story, and the way that magic is included so subtly but as such a strong influence on the heroine's life was well done. It did, however, make me feel really inadequate in my reading- there are so many classic sci-fi books and authors listed here, and although I recognise the names I've read hardly any of them (like Heinlein, Zelazny, Arthur C. Clarke). Though it is a bit of an inspiration to read some of those books!
Basically, Sea Hearts is a story about selkies. On a small island, a girl called Misskaella discovers she can bring women (and men) out of the seals that visit the rocks. Feeling badly treated by the people of the island, she decides to bring out seal-women for the men who ask her- for a price- partly for the income, and partly for revenge. The seal-women are so enchanting that soon all the men on the island want sea wives rather than land wives, and upheaval follows.
The story is told from a number of different perspectives, but never by a sea wife. It's a story that made me frustrated for a long period- not because the book is bad, but because the idea of selkies is so sad. They are always so quick to pick up their seal skins and return to the sea when they have the chance. In this book, everyone suffers- the selkies, the men who love them and the women. But it's beautifully told, and I loved the island- the descriptions made me think of the Hebrides, but it might be meant to be more based on the islands near Ireland. In any case, it is a small community where life is centred around the sea, but the sea is so many different things. In the end, a satisfying story. And selkies are sadly underrepresented in fiction I think.
I think I'll keep looking for fantasy for a while- any great books that have come out lately?