Friday 20 November 2020

Waiting for Bluebeard by Helen Ivory


'Waiting for Bluebeard' tries to understand how a girl could grow up to be the woman living in Bluebeard's house. The story begins with a part-remembered, part-imagined childhood.

Goodreads description

I have been meaning to write this review of a wonderful collection by British poet Helen Ivory for months. But it is a daunting book to write about. It is psychologically complex and about topics that are difficult to address. Yes the descrption above is correct, but look closer. What or who is Bluebeard? 

Clarissa Pincola Estes in Women Who Run With The Wolves devotes many pages to looking at the Bluebeard archetype of the fairytale of that name. In that story Bluebeard is an abuser and serial murderer of women. His latest wife finds their remains in the cellar he has forbidden her to enter even though (or because) he gave her the key and told her not to enter. As an archytypal take on women and their abusive men the Bluebeard fairytale is full of lessons. 

Waiting for Bluebeard starts at a different point in the story. It starts with the birth and childhood of Bluebeard's future wife. The issue Helen Ivory is exploring is what happens in a woman's upbringing to make her susceptible to the Bluebeards of this world. There is a wonderful mixture of the fantasy and the real in the poems, not just because magic (as we know on this blog) can be used to highlight truths, but also because that is how children see the world. In the second part of the book we see the young woman enter Bluebeard's house and her disappearance. 

There are parallels between the woman's experiences as a child with her silent distant father 

My father was a shadow
who stood at the school gates...

... his face wore the aspect
of moonless dark.

and the silent brooding Bluebeard
When Bluebeard played the piano
moonlight leached through the curtains
and stained his hands 
with its haunted blood.

Those experiences have taught her how to deal with her husband, how to disappear.

There are other images from childhood that foreshadow the girl's life as Bluebeard's bride. There is for example the recurring theme of skins and hides, the stripping of hides and the putting on of skins:

The tariff  for crossing the threshold
was a single layer of skin. 

but it doesn't stop with a single layer. 

Of course I can only hint at the many of layers in this stunning book, you will have to read yourself to discover them all. Recommended. 

Monday 12 October 2020

Poetry Collection and Launch


My poetry collection Owl Unbound has just been published and will be launched online at the Cheltenham Poetry Festival on 23rd October. I will be reading from the book and will be joined by poet friends - Adam Horovitz, Fiona Sampson and Anna Saunders. Tickets to the event are free, but you do need to sign up to get the link at  


Owl Unbound examines nature and humanity in a wide range of settings: from a stag beetle on a suburban fence to fossils on a Somerset beach, from a Cotswold roofer tiptoeing the thin laths to a bag lady in Covent Garden dancing at the amplifier's right hand. Whilst there is tender joy and love in the collection, there is also anger and loss.

Robert Frost described poetry as ‘a way of taking life by the throat’, and the fearless, vivid and immensely lyrical poems in Owl Unbound do just that. A masterful collection of poems by an extraordinary poet. 
Anna Saunders
There are so many lines here that stick with me and continue to unfold. Language that is fresh and unexpected, that gives us that inner nod of recognition. 
Angela France

Not all the poems are magic realism, but some are. 


You can get a copy from me (signed if you want) by emailing or you can buy a copy from my publisher Indigo Dreams Publishing

Sunday 12 January 2020

The Seven Churches by Milos Urban

First published in 1999, translated into six languages and a runaway best-seller in Spain, Seven Churches is one of the most haunting and terrifying thrillers to come out of Europe in years - by 'the dark night of Czech literature', Milos Urban. Written in the spirit of the sensation story but with rich Gothic overtones, Seven Churches traces the steps of a killer through the cathedrals of modern day - while his victims seem to be mysterious ghosts from the city's medieval past.
Amazon description

The subtitle of this novel is A Gothic Novel of Prague. It certainly is a Gothic novel in all senses of the word. It is about the Gothic architecture of Prague, in particular the seven churches that are at the centre of the story. The central character and narrator feels more attracted to the middle ages than to the modern. The novel is in the Gothic tradition of literature, not the Southern Gothic of the US but the English Gothic literature of Horace Walpole and the Czech (Gustav Meyrink, whose short stories reviewed here). Urban even gives his narrator such a liking for Walpole and co. that he says after reading them he is "more in tune with myself".  

As well as being a Gothic novel, Seven Churches is a mystery thriller with its central character investigating a series of gruesome crimes. I say "investigating", but the character is actually weak and inept, a typical oddball and outsider, he finds it hard to read people, especially women. He does have one gift however the ability at times to see the past, but it does not contribute to the solving of the crime, although it is important to the storyline. This gift and a number of strange incidents have resulted in the novel being described as magic realism. 

I enjoyed reading the novel, which I did in the Czech Republic. I ripped through it which is a good sign, but then it appealed to a lot of what I enjoy - medieval history, Prague, the concept of history, crime stories and the magical in the real. But I am not sure it succeeds in delivering on all fronts, and that includes the magic realism. 

Thursday 10 October 2019

Learning to Have Lost by Oz Hardwick

Oz Hardwick’s collection of prose poems Learning to have lost  the passing of time, memory, old age, illness, death and how these resonate and move within and around each other . True to form, Hardwick achieves a sense of a musical refrain and rhythm underpinning and connecting this absorbing collection. While the subject matter is weighty and the pain from the litany of loss candidly expressed, a resolute humour asserts itself throughout that is sometimes sinister, sometimes surreal, often surprising and enormously engaging.
Goodreads description

I was fortunate to hear Oz Hardwick read from this collection and from his most recent book The Lithium Codex at the Poetry Cafe Refreshed in Cheltenham. Both are collections of prose poems - put simply poems without line breaks, or prose with the rhythm and sensibilities of poetry. But that definition does not do prose poetry justice, it combines elements of both prose and poetry, existing in some sort of liminal space, not unlike magic realism. Maybe that is why I found so much magic realism in these poems. 

In Graduation a man opens his old school bag and sees that the books had all grown back into trees, with damp grass all around, and there were birds, like notes on telegraph wires, singing a song he'd written in an abandoned bandstand. The Universal Petting Zoo opens with the words Every time she returns from feeding the animals, she is smallerI could go on quoting sublime bits from every poem, where reality shifts as you read and suddenly you are somewhere else, somewhere no less true. I love the way Oz Hardwick's poems riff. It isn't a surprise that  Hardwick is also a musician. Nor was I surprised to hear that Hardwick is influenced by Richard Brautigan ( I reviewed Brautigan's Sombrero Fallout in this blog here). 

I love this slim book of poetry. Do buy a copy, but guard it. I lent my copy to my husband and had to fight to get it back! 

Tuesday 13 November 2018

Muscovy by Matthew Francis

Like his acclaimed Mandeville (2008), Matthew Francis's fourth Faber collection explores a world of marvels, real and fantastic. A man takes off for the moon in an engine drawn by geese, a poltergeist moves into a remote Welsh village, and a party of seventeenth-century Englishmen encounter the wonders of Russia - sledges, vodka, skating and Easter eggs. The scientist Robert Boyle basks in the newly discovered radiance of phosphorus (the noctiluca of the title) and the theme of light in darkness is taken up by the more personal poems in the book: phoneboxes, streetlamps, moonlight. 
Goodreads description

Another lovely poetry book for you. Not all the poems are magic realism, but most have that magic-realist sensibility that I have written about in the past. 

The collection opens with The Man in the Moon, an account of a trip to the moon powered by geese. It made me think of Calvino, although it is a based on a 17th century fantasy by Francis Godwin. Many of the poems in the collection are influenced by the past or by historical accounts. Some are realistic such as the title poem, which is based on an account by Andrew Marvell of an embassy to Russia. Others have a more supernatural  element e.g Corpse Candle and Familiar Spirit.  I have written before that historical novels (and poetry) that include the supernatural are presenting the world of the past realistically.

My favourite poem in the book is The Walker. It is a beautiful and subtle poem. It of course has a magic-realist angle, but also evokes its mountain setting accurately and in wonderful language:
And the sheep carried on, canted to one side,
    trotting on their adjustable legs

and the narrator's response to it:
I was an inkwash of myself, wet on wet, 
  among the limp vertebrae of ferns
  and the fuzz of bilberry. 
One stroke would smear me into a blur.

The natural eeriness sets the scene for the twist at the ending of the poem.

Wonderful stuff.

Sunday 30 September 2018

The Girl Who Forgets How To Walk by Kate Davis

"We never speak of it, but here we know the land
can t be trusted"

The debut collection from Cumbrian poet Kate Davis tells a personal narrative of contracting polio as a young girl, her subsequent disability and slow rehabilitation. A book of things known and not known, of untrustworthy ground and unsteady bodies, The Girl Who Forgets How to Walk finds comfort in the ancient limestone of her home county as she teaches herself to move again along its hills and coastlines. Inspiring, funny and deeply personal, with this book Davis creates her own map to navigate the wild landscape, demonstrating a unique connection to the earth beneath us.
Amazon description

After 278 posts, the vast majority of them reviews of magic realist books, I have rather run out of steam as evidenced by the low number of reviews this year. I don't want to stop posting on this blog, as I get great pleasure from sharing with you. But I have decided I need to make some changes - one is a bit of a break from reviewing novels. I will still review a magic realist novel when I read one, but I want to diversify. I have already reviewed an exhibition and a theatrical production, but there is one literary form which I have yet to review and yet it is ideally suited to inclusion in this blog and that is poetry. Of course this will require me to gain new skills and approaches, but then I need something new. I just ask that you bear with me as I find my way. 

The back cover of Kate Davis' poetry collection states Kate Davis writes magical realist poems, born of the hills, marshes and coastal edgelands of south Cumbria. And she does so wonderfully. 

The suite of poems The Girl Who Forgets How To Walk is the central section of the collection. It focuses on the story of the girl with polio. The beginning and concluding sections are made up of poems which complement it, being more focused on the landscape, its history and archaeology of Cumbria. These poems, while providing a setting to the girl's story (before and after her illness), do so much more.The girl's body afflicted by polio and the landscape mirror each other - 
We never speak of it, but here we know the land can't be trusted.

But the relationship between the Cumbrian landscape and the girl is a complex one. She wants to find the footpaths for herself. When she is shown geological maps she sees what is inside herself instead of seeing what is in the earth. In one of my favourite poems the members of the family are described as different rocks - 
Our mother was a stony outcrop,
our father a cobble chucked in a pond
and sunk.

A few poems, such as the one where she sees people floating in mid-air, are very obviously magic realist. But as I have written so many times magic realism is a sensibility and nearly all these poems share it. 

One of the joys of this work is that while Kate David deals with a highly personal and difficult issue she does so in a way that is joyous and even at times humourous. 

I recommend this collection to you.

Saturday 7 July 2018

Daughters of the Air by Anca L. Szilagyi

Tatiana "Pluta" Spektor was a mostly happy, if awkward, young girl—until her sociologist father was disappeared during Argentina’s Dirty War. Sent a world away by her grieving mother to attend boarding school outside New York City, Pluta wrestles alone with the unresolved tragedy and at last runs away: to the streets of Brooklyn in 1980, where she figuratively—and literally—spreads her wings. Told with haunting fabulist imagery by debut novelist Anca L. Szilágyi, this searing tale of love, loss, estrangement, and coming of age is an unflinching exploration of the personal devastation wrought by political repression.
Goodreads description

I was asked to read this book by its author, who is also a member of the Magic Realist Books Facebook Group. I am under no obligation to write a review, however here it is. 

This is an interesting book, beautifully written. It is also, as the Goodreads description makes clear, an unflinching account of the devastation wrought by political repression. Indeed there will be some readers who will find this novel somewhat too unflinching. It does not look away from what too often happens when a naive teenage girl runs away to the big city. The magic realism reflects this grittiness. In another writer's hands when Pluta grows and spreads her wings (literally and metaphorically) they would be a bird's or an angel's - all soft feathers - but Pluta has the wings of a bat or similar. 

For the Disappeared in the world of the Argentinian Dirty War, flying was a matter of being hurled from a helicopter into the ocean. It is against this background and the unknown fate of Pluta's beloved father that Pluta's story and that of her mother, Isabel, unfolds. In some ways Pluta's descent into the hell of 1980's Brooklyn, mirrors that of her father, who like Pluta is both naive and innocent. 

The book's chapters alternate between Pluta's story and that of her mother, between Pluta's current story and the family's backstory. This seems to be a popular story structure at the moment, but it relies heavily on the reader being engaged by both stories to the same degree, or otherwise the reader gets frustrated with the shifts in story. Unfortunately Isabel is not as sympathetic character as her daughter. 

Szilagyi's treatment of both the main characters require the reader to think and fill in the gaps. The ending is in many ways not a resolution but a compromise that allows life to continue. In every way this is a mature intelligent book which may not suit all readers, but it is an example of how magic realism is so suited to ambiguity and  to difficult subjects. 

Saturday 7 April 2018

The Stone Book Quartet by Alan Garner

A classic work of rural magic realism from one of Britain’s greatest children’s novelists.
Through four interconnected fables of a way of living in rural England that has now disappeared, Alan Garner vividly brings to life a landscape situated on the outskirts of industrial Manchester.
Smiths and chandlers, steeplejacks and quarrymen, labourers and artisans: they all live and work hand in hand with the seasons, the elements and the land. There is a mutual respect and a knowledge of the magical here that has somehow, somewhere been lost to us. These fables beautifully recapture and restore that lost world in simple, searching prose.

When I was a teenager I remember arguing that Alan Garner was a better writer than Tolkien. Now over forty years later I still think that there is a case to be made. At first it might seem ridiculous when one looks at the slim volume of this book (made up four short stories), but then the economy of Garner's writing is one of its strengths. He never overwrites, is never self indulgent, and yet he always writes enough to create complex layers. There is so much in this book that it is impossible for me to do it justice in this short blog post. If you are a reader who likes the writer to make life simple for you, who doesn't like having to think about what you are reading, then you probably will not appreciate Alan Garner's books. I found myself thinking about The Stone Book Quartet for weeks after reading it, which is partly why it has taken me so long to write this review.

The Stone Book Quartet is set around a specific area of Britain, a part of the county of Cheshire called Alderley Edge. It has been home for Alan Garner's family for time immemorial  and it is where he still lives.  The Stone Book Quartet is to some extent based on four generations of his family. Each quartet focuses on one young person from each generation - all are finding themselves and their place in a world that is changing. The first book in many ways is a benediction to a way of life that had not changed for centuries, but the good stone which generations of men in the family had hewn and worked is now running out. Masons of course have long been associated with secret rituals and in this quartet the central character, Mary, is initiated into a family secret, a rite of passage, in which she sees the hand of generations past. 

One reason I love Garner's writing so much is the way history pervades his work. His is an understanding of history, I might say a intuitive feeling for history, that chimes with mine. It is ever present and acts as a recurring theme, not in a doomed way (as is the case in Garner's novels The Owl Service and Red Shift) but in a no less profound way. 

The Stone Book Quartet is in part a celebration of handicraft. In the second book Mary's son turns his back on working stone and becomes a blacksmith. But there is still the sense of work well done, of hands mastering the world (and the elements) around them. It is a world that is constantly changing and yet is continuous. In the final book William, Mary's great-grandchild, is made a sledge by his blacksmith father. The sledge is formed from the handles of the forge bellows (the smith is retiring), from forged iron, and from some old wood which came from a hand loom used by Mary's uncle in a craft that was dying out even when Mary was a girl. The book ends with William sledging:

He set off. It had not been imagined. He was not alone on the sledge. There was a line and he could feel it. It was a line through hand and eye, block, forge and loom to the hill. He owned them all: and they owned him.

Of course the story of the family's craftsmanship does not end with William, Alan Garner is part of that story and, as I said in my first paragraph, you will not find a better master of the writer's craft. The stone book in the title is a book crafted for Mary with great love by her father from a stone. Mary's stone book was a prayer book and so might have been considered blasphemous, but it wasn't. For me Garner's Stone Book Quartet is a very spiritual and mystical book and I am reminded of the Victorian church in Vauxhall, London, where I used to work. Although it was a church full of beautiful craftsmanship, it was a church for the poor working class people of the neighbourhood. Everywhere, in the stone and wood carvings, the mosaics, the embroidered vestments and banners, the church celebrated the sacrament of working with your hands. "Remember," it said, "Jesus was a carpenter, a working man like you."

Sunday 10 December 2017

Kneehigh Production of The Tin Drum

One of my first jobs was as the manager at the Puppet Centre Trust, an organization dedicated to promoting the art of puppetry in the UK. Some of the most impactful theatre shows I have seen utilized puppets. I love the way puppets can introduce magic into the real.

Kneehigh is a theatre company which has taken puppetry to the heart of its work and delivers magic realism in the theatre. As their website says they "love to create magic with partners, collaborators, co-producers and audiences across the world." Having last year mounted a production of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's short story A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings Kneehigh have now turned their attention to Gunter Grass' magic-realist masterpiece The Tin Drum. As with A Very Old Man Kneehigh have joined forces with British puppetry royalty the Wright family and the Little Angel Marionette Theatre.

The show has been touring Britain and has received rave reviews in regional and national media. I saw the show at Shoreditch Town Hall in London. The show is a rumbustious, loud, funny/dark, affair full of music and song, knockabout and great puppetry.

Inevitably translating a long complex book into a theatre show means that some things are lost. Choices have to be made. The main choice was to make the play musical/operatic. The second choice was to replace the second world war setting with a more ambiguous one - the play starts with the statement Once upon a war, which war doesn't really matter. The second choice is particularly relevant given recent events and makes one ponder how easily very ordinary men, like Oskar's father, can become drawn into supporting fascism. 

The puppet Oskar is just wonderful. Beautifully designed, his body is finely balanced making his movement natural. His slightly alien face can be read in many ways - childish, naive and yet judging the adult world that he chooses not to join. He has a solemn air and brings the necessary serious counterbalance to the slapstick fun generated by the actors. I wanted more of him. When Oskar is centre stage, as when his drum undermines the beat of a fascist rally, he takes the drama to another level. But he isn't at the centre nearly enough. In the novel he is the narrator; the book's point of view is his point of view, although we cannot be certain of the veracity of his account, which starts with the words Granted I am the inmate of a mental institution... The contrast in the choice of opening lines in the play and the book is a revealing one. At the end of the play the boy/puppet Oskar is replaced by the man/actor Oskar without explanation. And when the performers assembled to take a bow the puppet was absent. To my mind he really should have been there.

Monday 13 November 2017

The Shaman's Game by James D. Doss

For the Ute of Southern Colorado, the annual Sun Dance is among the most solemn and sacred of rituals. But too often recently Death has been an uninvited guest at the hallowed ceremony. None of the deceased has sustained visible, life-ending injuries, so Charlie Moon is reluctant to call it murder. Yet he knows there was nothing "natural" about the unexplained deaths of young and strong dancers, like the blue-armed Shoshone, Joseph Sparrow.
Daisy Perika is also aware of the events unfolding around her, but unlike her skeptical policeman nephew, she trusts the rumors of sorcery that travel like smoke on the wind. For there is much the eyes cannot see and the hands cannot touch; and the spirits have sent her words and signs warning there is great evil in her midst...and that there are many more corpses to follow.
The return of a childhood friend -- a beautiful Ute woman back from college to write a newspaper story revealing who, or what, is stealing men's lives -- has raised the stakes in Charlie Moon's investigation. With those he cares for deeply suddenly in harm's way, perhaps he should heed his friend Parris's suggestion that he look beyond the rational for answers. But Charlie has seen all too often the lethal results of hatred, bitterness and delusion. And it's these very real human failings he is determined to explore in order to catch a killer before Death darkens the Sun Dance once again.
Goodreads description
As regular readers of this blog will know I like mystery stories, whether magic realist ones or not. In the case of magic realist mysteries (such as The Shaman's Game) the magic brings another layer to the mystery - it introduces alternative motivations, different belief structures, additional mystery, and on occasion a different answer to the mystery. I will not tell you whether the latter applies to this book for obvious reasons.
I really enjoyed The Shaman's Game. James D.Doss is not a writer with whom I was familiar and had to go to a specialist crime bookshop to find his book (and then only one), which suggests that he may not be published in the UK. He was worth the effort. 
The Shaman's Game is the fourth book in the Charlie Moon series. Interestingly my copy says it is the fourth in the Shaman series. As Daisy Perika, detective Charlie Moon's aunt, is the shaman in the title this suggests there may have been a shift in the emphasis in the series. The balance between the two main characters in this book is pretty equal. This is in some ways indicative of the balance one finds in the genre between magic and realism. Charlie approaches the deaths of the sun dancers as a rational detective, looking for evidence and believing in rational answers. Daisy thinks he is ignoring the spirit world. There is a loving, if not always respectful, rivalry between the two. 
But the characters are more complex than that. Daisy may be the shaman, but she will back up her magic with practical plans to ensure the result she wants. When Daisy visits the pitukupf, the Ute leprechaun, she brings gifts for the little spirit, sets them down by the entrance to his lair and settles down to dream. When she leaves, she does not look back and verify that the gifts had been removed by the pitukupf. We read the debate in her head on the subject - to look back would be to show disrespect for the spirit, there was no need as she had seen the gifts in his hands in her dream. At the end of the book Charlie makes a similar decision, when he is confronted with the fact that his Ute belief systems may have been suppressed but are still there. 
It would be wrong to finish a review of Doss's work without mentioning the richness of his writing. His descriptions of the land and nature in which the story takes place are lovely and you feel how their homeland impacts on the beliefs of the characters. I can just see Daisy's lonely caravan with its creaky porch watched by three peaks, believed to have once been three sisters. Nor should I fail to mention that the book is strewn with wry humour, including some clever use of characters' thoughts contradicting their words. 
I recommend this book.

Thursday 28 September 2017

The Crane Wife by Patrick Ness

One night, George Duncan - decent man, a good man - is woken by a noise in his garden. Impossibly, a great white crane has tumbled to earth, shot through its wing by an arrow. Unexpectedly moved, George helps the bird, and from the moment he watches it fly off, his life is transformed.

The next day, a kind but enigmatic woman walks into George's shop. Suddenly a new world opens up for George, and one night she starts to tell him the most extraordinary story.

Wise, romantic, magical and funny, The Crane Wife is a hymn to the creative imagination and a celebration of the disruptive and redemptive power of love.

Goodreads Description

Patrick Ness is better known for his books for young people, especially A Monster Calls and 
the Chaos Walking Trilogy. Now he has turned his hand to adult fiction and more particularly to magic realism. 

The Crane Wife is a modern take on a Japanese fairytale. In the original story a poor sailmaker helps an injured crane by pulling an arrow from her wing. The next day a beautiful woman arrives at his home, and soon becomes his wife.  Ness's tale is set in Britain with the central character, George, an owner of a printing company. In the original the sailmaker's marriage is destroyed by his financial greed, in Ness's it is his desire to know everything about his Japanese wife that is destructive. George is a nice but rather ineffective man who has a habit of losing women. It is his insecurity that undermines the relationship.  Also appearing in the book is George's daughter, Amanda, who in many ways has inherited George's insecurity but expresses it in aggression. 

George and his crane wife together make beautiful pictures combining George's cut paper designs and her feather art. These become highly collectible and suddenly George has an unexpected fame. The pictures form a Japanese story, which in turn is told as intermissions throughout the book. 

The Crane Wife is about many things. And one of them is of course storytelling.  

"No!" she said, suddenly sharp. "Not explain. Stories do not explain. They seem to, but all they provide is a starting point. The story never ends at the end. There is always after. And even within itself, even by saying that this version is the right one, it suggests other versions, versions that exist in parallel."

The idea of other parallel versions is brought out in Ness' treatment of the fire at the climax of the book. Five times Ness writes - the fire began like this, each time giving a different version. We are left to make up our own minds. The book, like much magic realism, is full of ambiguity. We cannot be sure there is magic involved. There are alternative explanations. 

What did I make of this novel? Much as I wanted to love the story, and there were times when it was lovely, beautifully written, and thought provoking, I found it somehow lacking. Partly it is the problem of having the central character who is good and rather boring, partly it was a problem with the pacing, which was not helped by the crane wife intermissions. The ending really picked up the pace, but until that point the story driver didn't do it for me.  

Sunday 6 August 2017

The Other City by Michal Ajvaz

This review first appeared on my Adventures in the Czech Republic blog, but in case you missed it, here it is:

In this strange and lovely hymn to Prague, Michal Ajvaz repopulates the city of Kafka with ghosts, eccentrics, talking animals, and impossible statues, all lurking on the peripheries of a town so familiar to tourists. The Other City is a guidebook to this invisible, "other Prague," overlapping the workaday world: a place where libraries can turn into jungles, secret passages yawn beneath our feet, and waves lap at our bedspreads. Heir to the tradition and obsessions of Jorge Luis Borges, as well as the long and  distinguished line of Czech  fantasists, Ajvaz's Other City—his first novel to be translated into English—is the emblem of all the worlds we are blind to, being caught in our own ways of seeing.
Goodreads description

It is one of several books I have read which portray an alternative Prague existing alongside the "real" Prague. I have reviewed some of them on my Magic Realism Books blog: including A Kingdom of Souls  by Daniela Hodrova,  Keeping Bedlam at Bay in The Prague Cafe by M Henderson Ellis, Gustav Meyrink's works including of course The Golem and of course Kafka's The Metamorphosis And there are more such books on my to-be-read list.

I am not surprised that Prague has almost spawned a sub-genre of place-based magic realism. During my first visit to the city, only a few months after the Velvet Revolution, I was acutely aware of the magical or spiritual energy that seemed to flow out of Prague's ancient stones, rippling across the Vltava and climbing the steps to the castle and Emperor Rudolf's alchemical workshops. That magical echo is less audible now beneath the footsteps of eager tourists and the kerching of cash registers, but it is still there.

The Other City is set in a Czech winter, a time of year when I have always felt the Prague magic most acutely. Maybe it is because of the way the snow deadens sound and redraws the familiar outlines of buildings, smudging the boundaries between water, land and sky.  Ajvaz's Other City also emerges at night, something that is hard to imagine in the real city busy 24/7.

The alternative Prague that Ajvaz creates is too fantastical for my liking, closer to surrealism than magic realism. The author obviously had great fun inventing an amazing alternative world and mixing it in with the real Prague - "Customers at Cafe Slavia are seldom assaulted by sharks". I particularly loved the idea of the bases of the statues on Charles Bridge being used as stalls for tiny elks, but at times the weirdness just went on too long. I am perhaps too Anglo Saxon to appreciate this very Czech absurdism. By the way there are some great jokes about the Czech language in the book; "Case endings were originally invocations of demons." For this failed student of Czech, they still are!

It is hard at times, as the novel's central character pursues the Other City and is at times pursued by it's inhabitants, to see where the novel is going. But there is a resolution - a philosophical one, which comes to the central character in the last chapter.  Ajvaz is a researcher at the Prague Centre for Theoretical Studies and has published not only a book on Borges but also one called Jungle of Light: Meditations on Seeing and in many ways this book is also a meditation on seeing. I will say no more for fear of spoiling the book for you.

Thursday 3 August 2017


Having had to take a break from reviewing due to my heart attack and a family death, I am now back. I aim to be reviewing a book a week, as I did before, as soon as possible.

Again, my apologies to anyone waiting for a review, as I clear the backlog. Feel free to drop me an email to remind me that you are waiting. I won't mind.

Thursday 27 July 2017

The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares

Jorge Luis Borges declared The Invention of Morel a masterpiece of plotting, comparable to The Turn of the Screw and Journey to the Center of the Earth. Set on a mysterious island, Bioy's novella is a story of suspense and exploration, as well as a wonderfully unlikely romance, in which every detail is at once crystal clear and deeply mysterious. 

Inspired by Bioy Casares's fascination with the movie star Louise Brooks, The Invention of Morel has gone on to live a secret life of its own. Greatly admired by Julio Cortázar, Gabriel García Márquez, and Octavio Paz, the novella helped to usher in Latin American fiction's now famous postwar boom. As the model for Alain Resnais and Alain Robbe-Grillet's Last Year in Marienbad, it also changed the history of film.

Goodreads description

The Invention of Morel is one of those books which exist on the boundary of genres - magic realism, science fiction, philosophical fiction. But that does not matter, so often the best books are the most uncategorisable.  This is an amazing book:  only 100 pages long and yet so full of ideas, published in 1940 and yet so modern, indeed it is prescient in some of the ideas and themes, and as for the plot, well all I can say is Borges was right, this is a masterpiece. 

The book is written as a journal by a fugitive from the law, who in order to escape his punishment comes to an island that has the reputation of being a place of death, where everything, including anyone who visits, is dying. What crime the fugitive has committed (if any) is not made clear. Bioy Casares' approach is a class example of "less is more" in writing. A lesser writer might have been tempted to create a backstory, but by not doing so Bioy Casares not only keeps the story lean and to the point, but also introduces doubt and allows us to project our ideas on to the story. 

One day the fugitive sees a group of people in the villa, known as the museum, on the hill that overlooks the island. Among these newcomers is a beautiful woman, Faustine, with whom the fugitive falls in love from a distance. As detailed in the Goodreads description, Faustine was inspired by the author's obsession with the silent movie star Louise Brooks. 

To be on an island inhabited by artificial ghosts was the most unbearable of nightmares—to be in love with one of those images was worse than being in love with a ghost (perhaps we always want the person we love to have the existence of a ghost).
The fugitive's account has a nightmare quality. He is both terrified that he will be discovered -  indeed that the whole thing is a cruel trick on him by his pursuers - and unable to interact with Faustine and the others. He watches them from behind curtains, inside giant urns and as he realises that they cannot or will not see him. Then there are strange occurences - people appear and disappear, scenes are re-enacted, there are two suns in the sky, objects reappear in exactly the same place as a week earlier. And then there is the constant sense of death and decay - dead fish in the swimming pool, flowers wilting, etc.  We and the fugitive begin to wonder what is real. Bioy Casares introduces some footnotes by a fictional editor  just to add another level of uncertainty.

The most complete and total perception not only of the unreality of the world but of our own unreality: not only do we traverse a realm of shadows, we ourselves are shadows.

There is a reason for these strange occurences and that is the invention of Morel (Morel organised the group's island trip). More than that I cannot tell you without spoiling the book, although knowing will not prevent me from reading the book again. However I will read it with a different eye, seeing, I am sure, the brilliantly plotted clues that I missed or misread the first time, and enjoying the development  of philosophical themes. 

I commend this book to you. 

PS If this reminds you of the TV series Lost, it probably should do. The series seems to have been influenced by the novella, and if you look closely that influence is acknowledged on the screen when Sawyer is shown reading the book. But then as the Goodreads description says this is a hugely influential novel. 

Friday 21 July 2017

Welcome to the Magic Realism Blog Hop 2017

This is the first post in the Magic Realism Blog Hop 2017. This year 19 blogs are taking part. All are posting about magic realism. Below is a list of links to their posts to allow you to visit them. Each blog will have the same list at the bottom of their page, so you are able to hop from one post to another and in so doing discover new blogs and bloggers and read a wide range of posts about magic realism. 

What is Magic Realism?

Magical Realism incorporates fantastic or mythical elements into otherwise realistic fiction, film or art. You might find this post from a previous bloghop of interest: What is Magic Realism

The history of the Blog Hop
This is the fifth magic realism bloghop. I organised the first in July 2013 on the first anniversary of this blog. 

Some useful posts I wrote for previous blog hops
Magic realism resources 
Free magic realism
Magic Realist Writers from Around the World

Have fun, 

Regards Zoe Brooks

Wednesday 12 April 2017

Magic Realism Bookclub to read 100 Years Of Solitude.

Over on the Magic Realism Books Facebook group I am launching a monthly bookclub. Discussion starts May 1st.

The first book we will be reading is the book that in many ways started magic realism: One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It also happens to be the first book of magic realism I ever read.

The book is available in kindle format in the UK for £4.99 (£3.99 for the audio download) and is often picked up for less in second-hand shops.

The Facebook Group's address is

Monday 20 March 2017

The Stolen Child by Lisa Carey

May 1959. From one side of St. Brigid’s Island, the mountains of Connemara can be glimpsed on the distant mainland; from the other, the Atlantic stretches as far as the eye can see. This remote settlement, without electricity or even a harbor, has scarcely altered since its namesake saint set up a convent of stone huts centuries ago. Those who live there, including sisters Rose and Emer, are hardy and resourceful, dependent on the sea and each other for survival. Despite the island’s natural beauty, it is a place that people move away from, not to—until an outspoken American, also named Brigid, arrives to claim her late uncle’s cottage.

Brigid has come for more than an inheritance. She’s seeking a secret holy well that’s rumored to grant miracles. Emer, as scarred and wary as Rose is friendly and beautiful, has good reason to believe in inexplicable powers. Despite her own strange abilities—or perhaps because of them—Emer fears that she won’t be able to save her young son, Niall, from a growing threat. Yet Brigid has a gift too, even more remarkable than Emer’s. As months pass and Brigid carves out a place on the island and in the sisters’ lives, a complicated web of betrayal, fear, and desire culminates in one shocking night that will change the island, and its inhabitants, forever.

The Stolen Child is a powerful example of how magic realism can give pyschological depth to a work. The small island, cut off for weeks from the mainland by the sea, is a world in itself. Or should I say two worlds because the two central characters, Emer and Brigid, are in different ways touched by that other world of Irish myth - the world of the fairy, the "Good People" as they are called. But the Good People are far from good, they are a sinister presence feared by the Islanders and in particular by Emer who is terrified by the belief that the fairies will steal her son when he gets to the age of seven.  Brigid on the other hand is looking for the healing waters of St Brigid's well, which will grant her the child that fate has denied her. St Brigid of course was/is herself an ambiguous figure, a pagan goddess before she was made a saint, so the modern Brigid is in some ways seeking a blessing from the fairies. The well she is seeking is as much an entrance into the underworld as was the beehive that turned on Emer, filling her with poison.

There are many themes in this book, too many perhaps, but for me the overriding one was that of motherhood. The island has lost many of its men to the mainland or foreign shores and on occasion to the cruel sea. St Brigid's Island is an island of women without a future and so the bearing of children is particularly symbolic. In the two sisters we see very different mothers. Rose is easy-going in her fecundity, bearing her handsome husband a succession of twins. Emer has the one son, Niall, whom she watches over obsessively. Then there is Brigid, who has had a succession of pregnancies all of which have resulted in the loss of the baby. Brigid's desperation for a child drives her to the island from which her mother had been driven, to seduce the emotionally wounded Emer and then cruelly push her away, thus lighting a touchpaper for the explosive final chapters.

Lisa Carey has said that she was inspired in part by a documentary Inishark: Death of an Island (Inis Airc: Bas Oileain), which you can view on Youtube. Here is the trailer on IMDb.

Carey does a wonderful job of evoking the bleak beauty of the island, the loneliness and closeness of its community. Her writing about the place is quite intoxicating and haunting and I was not surprised that she has found herself visiting and revisiting Inisboffin, just over the channel from Inishark. I was less taken by the sections in the book where we learn Brigid's backstory in America, just as I was less taken with her as character. I was fascinated by Emer, who is a wonderful character. She should be unappealing, given the way she can suck joy out of everyone she touches (everyone except for Brigid and Rose). But her love for her son and her desperate desire to protect him ring so true to this mother of a boy.

A powerful piece of magic realism, not suited to those who like their books to shy away from dark subjects.

I received this book free from the publisher in return for a fair review.

Thursday 2 March 2017

Strange Worlds: The Vision of Angela Carter

Photo; Alice Hendy

Last weekend I visited the Strange Worlds exhibition at RWA in Bristol, England. Angela Carter lived in Bristol from 1960 for nearly a decade and studied English at Bristol University. She authored the Bristol Trilogy (1966-1971) - three novels set in the city, in which, according to her friend and editor Lorna Sage, “art and life mingle so that life itself is often a form of art”.

I loved the exhibition and plan to write about it and some of the themes it inspired in more detail. But as the exhibition ends on the 19th March, here is a general post about the exhibition to encourage you to visit if you can.

Strange Worlds: The Vision of Angela Carter is a dialogue between art, literature and the imagination by exploring the artists who influenced Carter and those who were inspired by her. Delving into the latent meanings of childhood fairytales and the twisted imagery of gothic mysticism, this exhibition pays homage to the dark and compelling drama of Carter’s visual imagination – brutal, surrealist and savage.

Photo; Alice Hendy

This unique exhibition, which reveals the profound impact of Angela Carter’s work on 21st century culture, includes painting, sculpture, drawing, installation, printmaking and film from the nineteenth century to the present day. Echoing Carter’s recurring themes of feminism, mysticism, sexuality and fantasy, the exhibition includes historically significant works by Marc Chagall, William Holman Hunt, Dame Paula Rego, Dame Laura Knight, Leonora Carrington and John Bellany, on loan from major national collections.

The exhibition also features works by major contemporary artists who were either directly influenced by Carter, or who explore themes found throughout her work. These include Ana Maria Pacheco - who will present her macabre and unsettling installation, The Banquet - Alice Maher, Eileen Cooper RA, Tessa Farmer, Nicola Bealing RWA, Marcelle Hanselaar and Lisa Wright RWA.

These works are shown alongside illustrations from Carter's books, manuscripts, photographs and personal artefacts that give a fascinating and intimate insight into her life and work.

The RWA is to be found at Queens Road, Bristol, BS8 1PX.


If you can't make it to the exhibition there is a fully illustrated catalogue, which includes reminiscences of those who knew and worked with Carter including close friends Christopher Frayling, Marina Warner, Christine Molan and her publisher, Carmen Callil - the founder of Virago Press. Other contributors include Jack Zipes, Victor Sage, David Punter and Kim Evans, director of the BAFTA award winning BBC documentary, Angela Carter’s Curious Room, filmed shortly before her untimely death.

The catalogue is available on Amazon: