{ Sci­ence }

The Guardian - Review - - Out In Paperback -

by Ken Hollings, Strange At­trac­tor, £13.99

At the start of this suc­cinct sur­vey of our undy­ing love af­fair with the cos­mos, Ken Hollings notes that we are all, even in this sci­en­tific age, “se­cretly fa­mil­iar with our star sign”. His book’s 12 chap­ters echo the 12 houses of the zo­diac. It is not a de­fence of as­trol­ogy, though, but rather a won­der­fully im­pres­sion­is­tic ex­plo­ration of how we have tried to make sense of the stars, from an­cient cul­tures such as the Maya and the me­dieval idea that as­tron­omy was an art, to the “lost cos­mo­nauts” – the Soviet as­tro­nauts who pre­ceded Yuri Ga­garin but never re­turned, their cap­sules lost in space.

Hollings’s ac­count takes the reader on some de­light­fully un­ex­pected cos­mic jour­neys. A riff on how, through pol­ished glass, stars look like snowflakes leads to Robert Hooke’s com­par­i­son of snowflakes and urine crys­tals, and ends with an Apollo as­tro­naut de­scrib­ing how in space “a urine dump at sun­set” was “the most beau­ti­ful sight in or­bit”.

This play­ful and evoca­tive med­i­ta­tion on the ce­les­tial shows that “the fur­ther into space we go, the more we learn about our­selves”.

PD Smith by Mick Kit­son, Canon­gate, £8.99

Sal is the de­but novel by a jour­nal­ist turned teacher who was frus­trated with the books on the cur­ricu­lum and set out to write some­thing he would want to teach. In 13-year-old Sal his novel has a strong and dis­tinc­tive first-per­son nar­ra­tor. Sal has killed her al­co­holic mother’s boyfriend, who had been sex­u­ally abus­ing her for five years, and is on the run with her 10-year-old sis­ter, Peppa. They spent a year watch­ing YouTube videos and learn­ing about sur­vival; now they head into the Scot­tish wilder­ness in search of safety and re­demp­tion.

Sal’s ob­ser­va­tions of her sis­ter are com­pelling and beau­ti­ful. “She is ei­ther still like a stone or go­ing re­ally fast. She eats fast and she talks fast.” The sis­ters’ re­la­tion­ship is a real high­light of the book, and the dif­fer­ences in their per­son­al­i­ties are well drawn.

Kit­son writes clearly and con­cisely. The de­pic­tions of wilder­ness sur­vival are de­tailed and will ap­peal to any­one who dreams of es­cap­ing the con­fines of mod­ern life. The girls’ ca­pa­bil­ity, hu­man­ity and hu­mour are in­spir­ing. Sal is an am­bi­tious and skilled book: lit­er­a­ture needs more sto­ries like this. Jenni Fa­gan by AJ Pearce, Pi­cador, £7.99

A jolly romp through Lon­don in the blitz sounds like an un­likely idea for a novel, but Dear Mrs Bird is full of poignant mo­ments that cut through the froth of its nar­ra­tor’s voice. Miss Em­me­line Lake is a plucky gal who dreams of be­com­ing a “lady war cor­re­spon­dent”. This is a world in which one’s reg­i­ment has “a bit of a time of it”, and Boots in the high street has “taken a biff dur­ing the raids”. It’s stiff up­per-class lips all round.

Emmy’s jour­nal­is­tic am­bi­tions also take a biff when she ac­ci­den­tally lands a job typ­ing up let­ters for a women’s magazine prob­lem page, run by a ter­ma­gant in a feath­ery hat. Emmy finds her­self moved by her cor­re­spon­dents’ trou­bles, and be­gins, rashly, to an­swer them.

Though at times the book ap­pears to be an Eve­lyn Waugh pas­tiche crossed with a Ra­dio 4 com­edy drama, com­plete with hi­lar­i­ous mis­un­der­stand­ings and some dodgy di­a­logue, Emmy is truly charm­ing. When her up­per lip fi­nally wob­bles, the reader’s will, too. In the end, the novel’s spirit is madly win­ning, and its fore­ground­ing of wartime women seems spiff­in­gly mod­ern.

Katy Guest by Car­men Maria Machado, Ser­pent’s Tail, £8.99

“How much to get that ex­tra stitch?” the nar­ra­tor’s hus­band asks in the labour room as his wife is sewn up after a difficult birth. “You of­fer that, right?” “The Hus­band Stitch”, the stand­out story in this de­but col­lec­tion, is a tense, se­duc­tive fairy­tale about ru­mour and si­lence, sex and power, au­ton­omy and be­ing ig­nored. Machado blends in many folk tales, ex­plor­ing their deep roots in women’s ex­pe­ri­ence. And she chal­lenges our in­di­vid­ual read­ings: “That may not be the ver­sion of the story you’re fa­mil­iar with. But I as­sure you, it’s the one you need to know.”

None of the other sto­ries is as achieved as this, but there’s a ragged glory to their for­mal ex­per­i­men­ta­tion and erotic fear­less­ness, and the gusto with which they rein­vent hor­ror, SF and fairy­tale tropes.

Machado ma­nip­u­lates reg­is­ters to achieve jar­ring ef­fects, as in the deeply un­com­fort­able “The Res­i­dent”, which uses the fusty lan­guage of the Vic­to­rian ghost story for a con­tem­po­rary tale about an artists’ colony. Like many of these pieces, it falls be­tween ex­er­cise and in­spi­ra­tion, but sig­nals a writer of rare dar­ing. Jus­tine Jor­dan

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